WITNESS STATEMENTS DIRECT: MEMORY, GESTMIN £15 MILLION AND QUITE A LOT OF ALCOHOL: A HEADY BREW
There is a certain appropriateness in one of the last major first-instance judgments of Mr Justice Leggatt being about witness credibility and the Gestmin criteria. In Blue -v- Ashley  EWHC 1928 (Comm) Gestmin figured heavily. Everyone believed they were telling the truth. The judge had to apply the criteria to memory about what happened in a pub four years previously.
“… no reasonable person present in the Horse & Groom on 24 January 2013 would have thought that the offer to pay Mr Blue £15 million was serious and was intended to create a contract, and no one who was actually present in the Horse & Groom that evening – including Mr Blue – did in fact think so at the time. They all thought it was a joke. The fact that Mr Blue has since convinced himself that the offer was a serious one, and that a legally binding agreement was made, shows only that the human capacity for wishful thinking knows few bounds.”
The claimant sued the defendant for £15 million. It was alleged that the defendant had agreed to pay the claimant £15 million if the share prIce of Sports Direct reached £8.00 a share. The conversation took place in a pub. The issues related to whether the conversation had take place and whether it had any legal effect. The judge found it had no legal effect and there was no agreement that was binding in law. There was little in writing and assessment of the witness evidence and the memories as to what was said was central to the case.
THE JUDGMENT ON MEMORY
“EVIDENCE BASED ON MEMORY
It is rare in modern commercial litigation to encounter a claim, particularly a claim for millions of pounds, based on an agreement which is not only said to have been made purely by word of mouth but of which there is no contemporaneous documentary record of any kind. In the twenty-first century the prevalence of emails, text messages and other forms of electronic communication is such that most agreements or discussions which are of legal significance, even if not embodied in writing, leave some form of electronic footprint. In the present case, however, such a footprint is entirely absent. The only sources of evidence of what was said in the conversation on which Mr Blue’s claim is based are the recollections reported by the people who were present in the Horse & Groom on 24 January 2013 and any inferences that can be drawn from what Mr Blue and Mr Ashley later said and did. The evidential difficulty is compounded by the fact that most of the later conversations relied on by Mr Blue were also not recorded or referred to in any contemporaneous
I have no reason to think that (with the possible exception of Mr Leach when he retreated from what he had said to Mr Blue’s solicitors) any of the witnesses were doing anything other than stating their honest belief based on their recollection of what was said in relevant conversations. But evidence based on recollection of what was said in undocumented conversations which occurred several years ago is problematic. In Gestmin SGPS SA v Credit Suisse (UK) Limited  EWHC 3560 (Comm), at paras 16-20, I made some observations about the unreliability of human
memory which I take the liberty of repeating in view of their particular relevance in this case:
“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.
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).
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
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.
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 ”
In the light of these considerations, I expressed the opinion in the Gestmin case (at para 22) that the best approach for a judge to adopt in the trial of a commercial case is to place little if any reliance 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
A long list of cases was cited by counsel for Mr Blue showing that my observations in the Gestmin case about the unreliability of memory evidence have commended themselves to a number of other judges. In some of these cases they were also supported by the evidence of psychologists or psychiatrists who were expert witnesses: see e.g. AB v Catholic Child Welfare Society  EWHC 3334 (QB), paras 23-24, and related cases. My observations have also been specifically endorsed by two academic psychologists in a published paper: see Howe and Knott, “The fallibility of memory in judicial processes: Lessons from the past and their modern consequences” (2015) Memory, 23, 633 at 651-3. In the introduction to that paper the authors also summarised succinctly the scientific reasons why memory does not provide a veridical representation of events as experienced. They explained:
“… what gets encoded into memory is determined by what a person attends to, what they already have stored in memory, their expectations, needs and emotional state. This information is subsequently integrated (consolidated) with other information that has already been stored in a person’s long- term, autobiographical memory. What gets retrieved later from that memory is determined by that same multitude of factors that contributed to encoding as well as what drives the recollection of the event. Specifically, what gets retold about an experience depends on whom one is talking to and what the purpose is of remembering that particular event (e.g., telling a friend, relaying an experience to a therapist, telling the police about an event). Moreover, what gets remembered is reconstructed from the remnants of what was originally stored; that is, what we remember is constructed from whatever remains in memory following any forgetting or interference from new experiences that may have occurred across the interval between storing and retrieving a particular experience. Because the contents of our memories for experiences involve the active manipulation (during encoding), integration with pre existing information (during consolidation), and reconstruction (during retrieval) of that information, memory is, by definition, fallible at best and unreliable at worst.”
In addition to the points that I noted in the Gestmin case, two other findings of psychological research seem to me of assistance in the present case. First, numerous experiments have shown that, when new information is encoded which is related to the self, subsequent memory for that information is improved compared with the encoding of other information. Second, there is a powerful tendency for people to remember past events concerning themselves in a self-enhancing light.
Mindful of the weaknesses of evidence based on recollection, I will make such findings as I can about what was said in the conversations on which Mr Blue relies and in particular in the crucial conversation on 24 January 2013 on which his claim is founded.”
THE GESTMIN TEST
- Witness evidence, reliability & credibility: Why everyone should read Gestmin
- Where does the truth lie? Gestmin in the family courts.
CASES WHERE THIS APPROACH HAS BEEN CONSIDERED (AND APPLIED)
- R (British American Tobacco) -v- Secretary of State for Health  EWHC 1169 (Admin)
- Barker -v- Baxendale Walker Solicitors  EWHC 664 (Ch)
- Sloper -v- Lloyds Bank PLC  EWHC 483 (QB)
- Dunhill -v- W Brook & Co  EWHC 165 (QB)
- Royal National Institute for Deaf People -v- Turner  EWHC 3301 (Ch)
- Mainland Digital Communications Ltd -v- Chaddah  EWHC 1580 (QB)
- Foulser -v- The Commissioners for Her Majesty’s Revenue & Customs  UKFTT 220 (TC)
- Lavis -v- Nursing & Midwifery Council  EWHC 4083 (Admin)
- Le Puy Limited -v- Potter  EWHC 193 (QB).
- Prescott -v- The University of St Andrews  CSOH 3
- UBS -v- Kommunale Wasserwerke  EWHC 3615.
- Hirtenstein -v- Hill Dickinson LLP  EWHC 2711
- Virulite LLC -v- Virulite Distribution Ltd  EWHC 366 (QB)
- Watson Farley & Williams -v- Itzhak Ostrovizky  EWHC 160 QB
- East England Schools CIC -v- Luci Palmer  EWHC 4138 (QB).
OTHER POSTS ON WITNESS CREDIBILITY
This issue is also discussed in a number of other posts.
- Witness statements and witness credibility: getting back to basics
- Appealing on the judge’s findings of facts: a trial is not a dress rehearsal but “the first and last night of the show”.
- Assessing the credibility of a witness: it is a matter of communications.
- Reconstruction and recollection: honest witnesses get things wrong: which witness will be believed.
- The Central Bank of Ecuador case revisited: the Ocean Frost approach.
- When a witness says different things in different witness statements: don’t bank on winning.
- Reliability of witness evidence: honesty is not the same as reliability