In the process of doing human rights documentation work, human rights practitioners can sometimes encounter scenes of human rights violations earlier than enforcement agencies, or they may come across physical or documentary evidence of alleged human rights crimes independently. If this occurs, they bear the important responsibility of recording and/or storing that evidence and any useful accompanying information responsibly. If that evidence is to be used in a court later, it must be handled carefully. This is where the chain of custody comes into play.

What is the Chain of Custody?

The record of a chain of custody is a written record of all of the individuals who have had control over any piece of information, be it physical evidence or documentation. The record should also include other information like the purpose for which they handled the document. For the information that is normally required, see the ‘Key Features’ section below. In human rights documentation contexts, the chain starts when the documentation is first retrieved or collected and ends at the moment where it is handed to an investigating authority or court.

Why is it important?

First, as the documentation may be relied on by a court of law, the record of a chain of custody serves as proof that that documentation has not been improperly tampered or interfered with when changing hands. This is of utmost importance as evidence that is improperly interfered with can be deemed inadmissible, meaning that it cannot be admitted to the court as evidence. Second, if the identity of each individual who has had control over the evidence is clearly recorded, the court can call the right individuals to testify in court if needed.

Key Features

The record of a chain of custody should clearly state:

1. A description of the evidence, for example:
  • Reference number, if applicable
  • Reasons for retrieving/collecting
  • Date and time of retrieval/collection
  • Location of retrieval/collection
2. Details of the collector (for example, name and organisation) 3. The identity of the person who released and collected the documentation respectively; 4. The signature of the persons mentioned above; 5. The time and date at which any exchange of hands happens; 6. The purpose of any change of custody. This record should be updated every time the documentation changes hands. The list above is non-exhaustive, and more information can be added if necessary, such as photographs or copies of the evidence. Below is a sample template for a chain of custody form.

Chain of Custody Sample Template

Description of the Documentation

Reference number

(if applicable)

Reasons for retrieval/ collection

(or brief description)

Date and time of retrieval/ collection
Location of retrieval/ collection
Particulars of the collector
Name
Location
Chain of Custody
Date & Time

Released by:

Signature:

Received by:

Signature:

Purpose of change of custody
Date & Time

Released by:

Signature:

Received by:

Signature:

Purpose of change of custody

For more information:

See more templates in Appendix 1 of the “Handbook on Civil Society Documentation of Serious Human Rights Violations”

References

Sander Couch Federica D’ Alessandra. “Handbook on Civil Society Documentation of Serious Human Rights Violations.” Public International Law & Policy Group. https://www.vu.nl/nl/Images/PILPG_Handbook_on_Civil_Society_Documentation_of_Serious_Human_Rights_Violations_Sept_2016_tcm289-785328.pdf.

Syria Justice and Accountability Centre. “Manual: Documenting Human Rights and Humanitarian Law Violations in Syria.” 2014. https://syriaaccountability.org/library/documenting-human-rights-and-humanitarian-law-violations-in-syria/.

Last Updated: August 15, 2018

Author: Nova Pui Yan Tang