(a) General Rule. Every person is competent to be a witness except as otherwise provided by statute or these rules.
(b) Disqualification of a Witness. A person is disqualified to be a witness if the court determines that (1) the proposed witness is incapable of expressing himself concerning the matter as to be understood by the judge and jury either directly or through interpretation by one who can understand him, or (2) the proposed witness is incapable of understanding the duty of a witness to tell the truth.
Subsection (a) differs from the federal rule which provides that the only exceptions to the competency rule are those set forth in the Rules of Evidence. Because legislation such as the Dead Man's Statute, S.C. Code Ann. § 19-11-20 (1985), still exists limiting witness competency, the rule also refers to exceptions provided by statute.
At common law, there were numerous grounds which would render a witness incompetent. Legislation has eliminated many of these common law disqualifications resulting in a liberalization of the rules regarding competency. See, e.g., S.C. Code Ann. §§ 19-11-10 (1985) (party competent to be witness); 19-11-30 (Supp. 1993) (spouse of party competent); 19-11-40 (1985) (witness having interest in action is not disqualified); 19-11-50 (1985) (criminal defendant may testify); 19-11-60 (1985) (convicted person may testify). Subsection (a) continues this trend of liberalization by creating a general rule of competency.
This rule will result in a change in the law regarding competency of children. Under prior South Carolina law, proof of competency for children under the age of fourteen was required unless the child was a victim of abuse or neglect, as defined in the Children's Code, who was testifying concerning the abuse or neglect. South Carolina Department of Social Services v. Doe, 292 S.C. 211, 355 S.E.2d 543 (Ct. App.1987); S.C. Code Ann. § 19-11-25 (Supp. 1993). Under this rule, children are presumed to be competent unless it is shown otherwise.
The federal rule does not contain a subsection (b). This provision was added to establish a minimum standard for competency of a witness and to make it clear that the determination of a witness' competency is within the sound discretion of the trial judge. In re Robert M., 294 S.C. 69, 362 S.E.2d 639 (1987); State v. Camele, 293 S.C. 302, 360 S.E.2d 307 (1987); State v. Pitts, 256 S.C. 420, 182 S.E.2d 738 (1971).