Judging people – and a case about a Porsche 917

AT-30012 McQUEEN LO RESPiper v. Hales, HHJ Simon Brown QC, 18 January 2013 read judgment

Two types of readers may be interested in this case; the first, who are interested in the age-old judging problem of whom to believe when faced with a conflict of evidence, and the second (and I don’t want to do any gender-stereotyping) those who are fascinated in whether a replica Porsche 917 (think Steve McQueen in Le Mans) over-revved and blew because (a) it had a gearbox fault or (b) the Defendant driver missed a gear.

I will disappoint the second set of readers – but the judgment is short and well-written, so, chaps, read it for yourselves  to find out why the gearbox was acquitted of all charges laid against it.

So, how do judges make their minds about whom to believe? The judge quoted from some of the familiar summaries in the cases: e.g 

”Credibility’ involves wider problems than mere ‘demeanour’ which is mostly concerned with whether the witness appears to be telling the truth as he now believes it to be. Credibility covers the following problems. First, is the witness a truthful or untruthful person? Secondly, is he, though a truthful person telling something less than the truth on this issue, or though an untruthful person, telling the truth on this issue? Thirdly, though he is a truthful person telling the truth as he sees it, did he register the intentions of the conversation correctly and, if so has his memory correctly retained them? Also, has his recollection been subsequently altered by unconscious bias or wishful thinking or by over much discussion of it with others? Witnesses, especially those who are emotional, who think that they are morally in the right, tend very easily and unconsciously to conjure up a legal right that did not exist. It is a truism, often used in accident cases, that with every day that passes the memory becomes fainter and the imagination becomes more active. For that reason a witness, however honest, rarely persuades a Judge that his present recollection is preferable to that which was taken down in writing immediately after the accident occurred. Therefore, contemporary documents are always of the utmost importance. And lastly, although the honest witness believes he heard or saw this or that, is it so improbable that it is on balance more likely that he was mistaken? On this point it is essential that the balance of probability is put correctly into the scales in weighing the credibility of a witness. And motive is one aspect of probability. ” Lord Pearce in Onassis v Vergottis [1968] 2 Lloyds Rep 403

Or Lord Bingham’s distillation of the factors in his “The Judge as Juror: The Judicial Determination of Factual Issues”

The main tests needed to determine whether a witness is lying or not are, I think, the following, although their relative importance will vary widely from case to case:

(1) the consistency of the witness’s evidence with what is agreed, or clearly shown by other evidence, to have occurred;

(2) the internal consistency of the witness’s evidence;

(3) consistency with what the witness has said or deposed on other occasions;

(4) the credit of the witness in relation to matters not germane to the litigation.

(5) the demeanour of the witness.

But it is number (5) that one has to be a little careful about. “I just know he is lying” is something people say all the time – “he just looks shifty – I can tell” Or can we? Are we just projecting our own preconceptions onto other people, derived from our own culturally specific ideas of what appears to be frankness or shiftiness.

The whole issue was summed up beautifully by the judge in this case:

Contemporaneity, consistency, probability and motive are key criteria and more important than demeanour which can be distorted through the prism of prejudice: how witnesses present themselves in a cramped witness box surrounded for the first time with multiple files can be distorted, particularly elderly ones being asked to remember minute details of what happened and what was said, and unrecorded, nearly 4 years later as here. Lengthy witness statements prepared by the parties’ lawyers long after the events also distort the accurate picture even though they are meant to assist the court.

Well said. “The prism of prejudice” encapsulates the dangers of thinking we just “know” who is telling the truth, without analysing why we say so. And, whilst the witness box does indeed prove to be the undoing of many liars, it can be an artificial environment in which to make an assessment of credibility.

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