Biddle & Co.

Bill Dixon , a partner at Biddle & Co., asks how reliable is memory in witness testimony

A great deal of psychological research is now available on both human memory in general and witness testimony in particular.

The dramatic effect of leading questions, for example, has been documented.

A US researcher Elizabeth Loftus, showed film of a car accident to the subjects. Some were asked how fast the first car was going when it "hit" the second; some how fast when it "smashed" into the second. Estimates of speed were much greater in the second group.

To some extent, the legal system already recognises such potential flaws. Leading questions, of course, are restricted in the courtroom, but is this too late? Nothing prevents a solicitor who is taking a proof or preparing a witness statement from asking leading questions and studies have shown that a person who commits to a particular position in writing (for example, in a witness statement) becomes much less likely ever to move subsequently from that view.

It has also been shown that the apparent confidence displayed by a witness in remembering something bears no real relation to that person's accuracy. Memory appears to involve an element of ongoing reinterpretation rather than being a photographic type record of actual events. Does psychological research offer any pointers as to when witness testimony is more or less likely to be accurate?

Delay is a relevant factor. The more time goes by the less likely that someone is able to accurately recall something – unfortunate for a legal system where trials may take place years after the events with which they are concerned.

The amount of stress someone was under at the time of witnessing an event also seems to affect recall; fright or anger for example, seems to adversely effect recall ability.

Witness testimony, it seems, will never be entirely accurate, highlighting the need for attention to be focused on contemporaneous documents as well as oral testimony wherever possible.

Charity case to High Court

The case of international children's charity worker Johannes Homan is expected in the High Court shortly. Homan is suing Associated Newspapers over a Mail on Sunday article which accuses him of fraud in connection with his involvement in the International Boy's Town Trust, an organisation devoted to shelter, education, training and resettlement of destitute children in third-world countries. Homan claims, among other things, that the story wrongly indicated he had been involved in 25 years of repeated sexual abuse of destitute children who had sought haven in Boy's Towns in India and that he had obtained donations from families and clubs in the UK by fraudulent misrepresentations.

MP suit decision imminent