Witnesses – Credibility and Probative Value

On Friday 3 August 2018 HHJ Simon Barker QC, sitting as a Deputy High Court Judge, handed down judgment in Saeed v Ibrahim [2018] EWHC 1804 (Ch).  The case concerned a claim for declarations, accounts or restitution or damages arising from property and other transactions involving some or all of the various parties.

Whilst the Claimants were ultimately successful, the interest of the case for this article’s purpose is the nature of the oral evidence heard by the court.  It is clear from the judgment that there were, perhaps not unusually serious issues arising from the oral evidence heard at trail.  That clearly had relevance to the case itself but also provides an opportunity to review certain of the issues and factors surrounding the use and selection of witnesses.  For example:

(a) Quality of Witness Statements

It should go without saying but frequently needs to be said that a person needs to understand and approve their statement in considered, clear and logical fashion, if only to avoid the conclusion HHJ Simon Barker QC reached here:

“12.  When giving his oral evidence, D1 spent some time making significant corrections to and clarifications of 10 of the 49 paragraphs of his main witness statement. Mr Ghaffar submitted that in their evidence his clients, that is D1 and D3 for this purpose (D1 purported to give evidence on behalf of D5), did their best to tell the truth but, Mr Ghaffar conceded, there were aspects of their evidence which were unsatisfactory.”

(b) Problems with Oral Evidence

Of course one can never entirely legislate for what a witness will say when called to give their evidence orally but “car crash” performances rarely if ever win the day:

13. …Mr Briggs submitted that D1 was an exceptionally evasive and unsatisfactory witness…D1 was unable to answer questions; other occasions when D1 launched into tangential speeches as answers; various occasions on which he blamed his solicitors for shortcomings (flaws in his witness statement, disclosure shortcomings including in relation to powers of attorney in his sons’ names, and inconsistencies between his pleaded case and his evidence). In addition, during cross-examination D1 admitted that C1 had indeed brought cash in a holdall or bag to his home, admitted the existence of documentation reflecting money transfers through AR to C1, and referred to meetings (initially one, then two, and finally three) with a lawyer about trust deeds. At one point in cross-examination, D1 referred to C1 having brought cash to him at his home “so many times” that he could not say whether or not he had done so on the occasion the subject of the question. From the outset of his oral evidence D1 appeared confident in his answers. He showed no signs of concern or embarrassment when challenged on his probity (e.g. why he failed to make income tax returns when he had annual rental income in the order of £50,000), his lack of concern about the accuracy of conveyancing documents to effect property transfers (e.g. the transfer of 37LR to D3 in October 2005), and when, as not infrequently happened, he was caught out in lies. When giving evidence about his means and access to money (two examples are the use of family members as nominee holders of accounts and the use and whereabouts of an advance inheritance of several hundred thousand pounds said to have been received from his father) D1 was persistently evasive. To describe D1 as an unimpressive witness would fall well short of the mark.”

The Claimant’s counsel had in this context referred to Painter v Hutchinson [2007] EWHC 758 (Ch) to support his attack on the First Defendant’s credibility, in particular paragraph 3 of the judgment of Mr Justice Lewison (as he then was):

“However, in addition to having been convicted of dishonesty in the past, Mr Hutchison was also a very unsatisfactory witness. Even Miss Rich did not suggest that his evidence was reliable. I will give detailed examples later, but for now I summarise my general impression. He was evasive and argumentative. He would launch into tangential speeches when confronted by questions that he could not answer consistently with his case. He attempted to place the most strained readings on the plain words of his pleaded case and his principal witness statement. He was free with allegations that his previous solicitors and counsel had made mistakes in accurately recording his instructions. At times he gave self-contradictory answers within the space of a few minutes of his evidence. New allegations emerged in the course of his cross-examination which had not previously formed part of his pleaded case or his written evidence. It was impossible not to conclude that they had been made up on the spot. In the course of his cross-examination of Mr Hutchison Mr Cowen convincingly demonstrated to my mind that Mr Hutchison’s case had shifted in important respects either in response to evidence given by Mr Painter or in response to documents that had emerged on disclosure. It changed again and again in the witness box itself. His disclosure of documents has been lamentable and highly selective. In my judgment he has deliberately and dishonestly fabricated evidence in order to try to accommodate what was indisputable within the overall framework of his story.”

(c) “Pointless” selection of witness

Sometimes no witness may be better than the one selected.  It is sufficient under this sub-heading to simply set out in full paragraph 17 of the Judgment:

“Mr Javed Qamar (‘JQ’) is a long-standing friend of C1 and, to some extent, a funder of C1 in this case. In closing submissions, Mr Briggs accepted that JQ’s evidence was partisan. I disregard his evidence.”

(d) Passage of time & recollection

Reference was made to the fascinating and apposite remarks of Mr Justice Leggatt (as he then was) in Gestmin SGPS SA v Credit Suisse (UK) Ltd [2013] EWHC 3560 (Comm), albeit with reference to commercial cases:

“15. An obvious difficulty which affects allegations and oral evidence based on recollection of events which occurred several years ago is the unreliability of human memory.
 
16. While everyone knows that memory is fallible, I do not believe that the legal system has sufficiently absorbed the lessons of a century of psychological research into the nature of memory and the unreliability of eyewitness testimony. One of the most important lessons of such research is that in everyday life we are not aware of the extent to which our own and other people’s memories are unreliable and believe our memories to be more faithful than they are. Two common (and related) errors are to suppose: (1) that the stronger and more vivid is our feeling or experience of recollection, the more likely the recollection is to be accurate; and (2) that the more confident another person is in their recollection, the more likely their recollection is to be accurate.
 
17. Underlying both these errors is a faulty model of memory as a mental record which is fixed at the time of experience of an event and then fades (more or less slowly) over time. In fact, psychological research has demonstrated that memories are fluid and malleable, being constantly rewritten whenever they are retrieved. This is true even of so-called ‘flashbulb’ memories, that is memories of experiencing or learning of a particularly shocking or traumatic event. (The very description ‘flashbulb’ memory is in fact misleading, reflecting as it does the misconception that memory operates like a camera or other device that makes a fixed record of an experience.) External information can intrude into a witness’s memory, as can his or her own thoughts and beliefs, and both can cause dramatic changes in recollection. Events can come to be recalled as memories which did not happen at all or which happened to someone else (referred to in the literature as a failure of source memory).
 
18. Memory is especially unreliable when it comes to recalling past beliefs. Our memories of past beliefs are revised to make them more consistent with our present beliefs. Studies have also shown that memory is particularly vulnerable to interference and alteration when a person is presented with new information or suggestions about an event in circumstances where his or her memory of it is already weak due to the passage of time.
 
19. The process of civil litigation itself subjects the memories of witnesses to powerful biases. The nature of litigation is such that witnesses often have a stake in a particular version of events. This is obvious where the witness is a party or has a tie of loyalty (such as an employment relationship) to a party to the proceedings. Other, more subtle influences include allegiances created by the process of preparing a witness statement and of coming to court to give evidence for one side in the dispute. A desire to assist, or at least not to prejudice, the party who has called the witness or that party’s lawyers, as well as a natural desire to give a good impression in a public forum, can be significant motivating forces.
 
20. Considerable interference with memory is also introduced in civil litigation by the procedure of preparing for trial. A witness is asked to make a statement, often (as in the present case) when a long time has already elapsed since the relevant events. The statement is usually drafted for the witness by a lawyer who is inevitably conscious of the significance for the issues in the case of what the witness does nor does not say. The statement is made after the witness’s memory has been “refreshed” by reading documents. The documents considered often include statements of case and other argumentative material as well as documents which the witness did not see at the time or which came into existence after the events which he or she is being asked to recall. The statement may go through several iterations before it is finalised. Then, usually months later, the witness will be asked to re-read his or her statement and review documents again before giving evidence in court. The effect of this process is to establish in the mind of the witness the matters recorded in his or her own statement and other written material, whether they be true or false, and to cause the witness’s memory of events to be based increasingly on this material and later interpretations of it rather than on the original experience of the events.
 
21. It is not uncommon (and the present case was no exception) for witnesses to be asked in cross-examination if they understand the difference between recollection and reconstruction or whether their evidence is a genuine recollection or a reconstruction of events. Such questions are misguided in at least two ways. First, they erroneously presuppose that there is a clear distinction between recollection and reconstruction, when all remembering of distant events involves reconstructive processes. Second, such questions disregard the fact that such processes are largely unconscious and that the strength, vividness and apparent authenticity of memories is not a reliable measure of their truth.
 
22. In the light of these considerations, the best approach for a judge to adopt in the trial of a commercial case is, in my view, to place little if any reliance at all on witnesses’ recollections of what was said in meetings and conversations, and to base factual findings on inferences drawn from the documentary evidence and known or probable facts. This does not mean that oral testimony serves no useful purpose – though its utility is often disproportionate to its length. But its value lies largely, as I see it, in the opportunity which cross-examination affords to subject the documentary record to critical scrutiny and to gauge the personality, motivations and working practices of a witness, rather than in testimony of what the witness recalls of particular conversations and events. Above all, it is important to avoid the fallacy of supposing that, because a witness has confidence in his or her recollection and is honest, evidence based on that recollection provides any reliable guide to the truth.”

Of course a good witness will not always win the day any more than a bad witness will necessarily always lose the case for the party calling them.  Lessons can though be learned and remembered from Saeed, not forgetting the Judge’s ultimate conclusion on the evidence he heard requiring him to acknowledge at paragraph 20 of the Judgment:

“…the actual unreliability of almost everyone who gave oral evidence (the exception being D2, but she had almost no actual involvement or relevant knowledge).”

 

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