One of the things non-lawyers find most problematic about litigation is the notion of truth in the courtroom. Litigation lawyers on the other hand, especially the battle-weary ones, realise how fraught, and indeed relative, such a notion can be.
It is perhaps one of the most thorny discussions one can have with a client, which ordinarily goes something like, ‘I know what you’re telling me is the truth but the evidence points in another direction…perhaps we should settle the case.”
It is this gap between what the evidence bespeaks and the version of events embraced by each party, which appears at the root of many of the cases that reach trial. In my experience, it is only the boldest of litigants who are willing to lie under oath and ordinarily it is more likely they are simply convinced of their own version over that of the other side.
Sometimes a particular version of events will seem plausible yet the way the evidence unfolds, especially in the hands of a capable advocate, casts some doubt on the favoured scenario. This is where the lay-person and the lawyer diverge.
Truth is as much a feeling for a non-lawyer, one uncorrupted by the analytical mindset that necessarily becomes a part of who we are as lawyers. The lawyer says that where a detailed analysis of the evidence casts sufficient doubt on that which may seem the most likely version of events, it cannot be accepted by the court, viz, it isn’t true.
Judges can also be affected by the same kind of ‘gut-feel’ that one version of events gives over the other. However, this can be the root of a host of problems when from this starting point they then construct their reasons. The clinical ravages of the appellate process await.
The recent case of Bradley v Matloob  NSWCA 239 was the one that got me thinking about all of this. The plaintiff was approaching a set of traffic lights driving along a dual carriageway when a car travelling in the opposite direction made a right hand turn into her path. Whilst the plaintiff managed to avoid a collision with the vehicle, she lost control and collided with a truck further along the road causing her serious injury.
About 15-20 metres away there was an eye-witness to the accident (who we’ll call “P”). P said that the other car was a ‘tannish brown’ Ford with a black sun grille installed across the outside of its back window. P also said that as the Ford drove off along the street into which it had made its turn he decided to follow it until he observed it turn into a nearby factory unit. About 10 minutes later P drove into the factory unit and found a car that he thought was the same car as he had seen earlier and took its registration. He also drove around the whole car park to ensure there were no other cars like it. The registration P recorded was that of the first defendant’s car.
Seems pretty compelling at first glance. Yet the owner of the vehicle matching that registration, Mr Bradley, denied any knowledge of the incident when interviewed by the police.
The plaintiff also sued the Nominal Defendant, which for the uninitiated is a statutory body funded by a levy on CTP premiums to compensate the victims of car accidents where the negligent party is either uninsured or cannot be identified. So the dispute as to who should pay came down to one between the Nominal Defendant and Mr Bradley.
At the trial it was never suggested to Mr Bradley that he had lied about his involvement in the incident. Instead, the way it was put to him in cross-examination was:
“Q: If you had come within a metre of an oncoming car as you made a right hand turn that would be something that you would be well and truly be aware of?
The witness P’s evidence however, was heavily challenged in cross-examination, revealing two matters that enabled his reliability to be questioned:
- He was shown pictures of Ford vehicles of clearly differing colours yet he described them both in the same way as he described the plaintiff’s vehicle, ie. ‘tannish’ or ‘tannish brown’ (at one stage, when shown a photo of Mr Bradley’s vehicle, P agreed that it was not the offending vehicle, though this was tidied up in re-examination by his barrister); and
- He made repeated reference to the black grille on the rear window of the car he saw, yet the plaintiff’s car did not have one installed.
Both of these things, the trial judge was willing to overlook. However, here’s the rub, as it was skilfully submitted by Mr Bradley’s barrister – to find Mr Bradley liable the judge would have to have find that his evidence was not credible. Furthermore, the Court would have to find that Mr Bradley had in fact lied to the police shortly after the incident (and in court) in saying he had no knowledge of it.
Whether he was fully cognisant of the need to do so or not, the trial judge largely avoided this submission, which lay somewhat inconveniently in the way of the account he wanted to accept, ie. that of P. The knock-on effect of this failing was in Beech-Jones J’s view (with Leeming JA in agreement) to render the trial judge’s reasons inadequate by failing to ‘engage with, or grapple or wrestle with, the cases presented by each party’ (at ).
Nor did either of the other parties to the litigation suggest to Mr Bradley that he had lied. This resulted in a lack of procedural fairness, which placed the situation squarely in Browne v Dunn territory, a rule which also applies equally to judges (as pointed out by McColl JA at ).
The absence of a proper finding that Mr Bradley had lied left only one possible result: that the identity of the driver at fault simply could not be established…judgment reversed and entered against the Nominal Defendant instead!