REMOTE HEARINGS: BUT WHAT ABOUT “WITNESS DEMEANOUR”?

One of the issues that has been raised in objection to “remote” hearings is the question of witness demeanour.  In modern litigation recent case law suggests that this is not a major factor in any event.

 

“No doubt it is impossible, and perhaps undesirable, to ignore altogether the impression created by the demeanour of a witness giving evidence. But to attach any significant weight to such impressions in assessing credibility risks making judgments which at best have no rational basis and at worst reflect conscious or unconscious biases and prejudice”

LEGATT LJ ON DEMEANOUR

In SS (Sri Lanka), R (On the Application Of) v The Secretary of State for the Home Department [2018] EWCA Civ 1391 Legatt LJ rejected an argument that a delay of more than three months in giving a judgment rendered that decision unsafe.  The argument was that the delay rendered the judge’s findings on credibility unsafe.

THE JUDGMENT ON DEMEANOUR

There is a lengthy judgment on the issue of demeanour which has been considered in an earlier post. 

“…  See further Law Commission Report No 245 (1997) “Evidence in Criminal Proceedings”, paras 3.9–3.12. While the studies mentioned involved ordinary people, there is no reason to suppose that judges have any extraordinary power of perception which other people lack in this respect.
    1. This is not to say that judges (or jurors) lack the ability to tell whether witnesses are lying. Still less does it follow that there is no value in oral evidence. But research confirms that people do not in fact generally rely on demeanour to detect deception but on the fact that liars are more likely to tell stories that are illogical, implausible, internally inconsistent and contain fewer details than persons telling the truth: see Minzner, “Detecting Lies Using Demeanor, Bias and Context” (2008) 29 Cardozo LR 2557. One of the main potential benefits of cross-examination is that skilful questioning can expose inconsistencies in false stories.
    2. No doubt it is impossible, and perhaps undesirable, to ignore altogether the impression created by the demeanour of a witness giving evidence. But to attach any significant weight to such impressions in assessing credibility risks making judgments which at best have no rational basis and at worst reflect conscious or unconscious biases and prejudices. One of the most important qualities expected of a judge is that they will strive to avoid being influenced by personal biases and prejudices in their decision-making. That requires eschewing judgments based on the appearance of a witness or on their tone, manner or other aspects of their behaviour in answering questions. Rather than attempting to assess whether testimony is truthful from the manner in which it is given, the only objective and reliable approach is to focus on the content of the testimony and to consider whether it is consistent with other evidence (including evidence of what the witness has said on other occasions) and with known or probable facts.
“This suggests that the way in which the appellant answered questions did not create a favourable impression. Quite rightly, however, the FTT judge did not attach weight to that impression in assessing the credibility of the appellant’s account. Instead, he focussed on whether the facts alleged by the appellant were plausible, consistent with objectively verifiable information and consistent with what the appellant had said on other occasions (in particular, at his asylum interview and in recounting his history to the medical experts). Applying those standards, the FTT judge found numerous significant inconsistencies and improbable features in the appellant’s account which he set out in detail in the determination. As the FTT judge explained, it was “the cumulative effect of the implausible and inconsistent evidence” given by the appellant which led him to conclude that the core of the appellant’s account was not credible.
    1. Accordingly, even if the appellant had through his demeanour when answering questions given the FTT judge the impression that he looked and sounded believable, the suggestion that the FTT judge should have given significant weight to that impression, let alone that he could properly have treated it as compensating for the many inconsistencies and improbabilities in the content of the appellant’s account, cannot be accepted.”
Conclusion
  1. In my view, there were no reasonable grounds for arguing that the FTT judge’s decision in this case was unsafe, let alone for bringing a second appeal. I would therefore dismiss the appeal.”