INFERENCES TO BE DRAWN FROM SILENCE: THE VIEWS OF THE SUPREME COURT

In the recent case of  Gordon Ramsay -v- Gary Love [2015] EWHC 65 Mr Justice Morgan considered, among other things, the inferences that could properly be drawn from the absence or silence of a witness. He refers to the relevant principles being recently invoked by the Supreme Court in Prest -v- Prest [2013] 2 AC 415.  Here we look at what the Supreme Court said on this issue.

 THE CASE

The appeal related to the degree of control which a husband had over limited companies. At the ancillary relief hearing the husband had declined to give evidence.

KEY POINTS OF JUDGMENT ON THIS ISSUE

SUPREME COURT JUDGMENT ON THIS ISSUE

Lord Sumption

  1. The issue requires an examination of evidence which is incomplete and in critical respects obscure. A good deal therefore depends upon what presumptions may properly be made against the husband given that the defective character of the material is almost entirely due to his persistent obstruction and mendacity.
  2. In British Railways Board v Herrington [1972] AC 877, 930-931, Lord Diplock, dealing with the liability of a railway undertaking for injury suffered by trespassers on the line, said:

“The appellants, who are a public corporation, elected to call no witnesses, thus depriving the court of any positive evidence as to whether the condition of the fence and the adjacent terrain had been noticed by any particular servant of theirs or as to what he or any other of their servants either thought or did about it. This is a legitimate tactical move under our adversarial system of litigation. But a defendant who adopts it cannot complain if the court draws from the facts which have been disclosed all reasonable inferences as to what are the facts which the defendant has chosen to withhold. A court may take judicial notice that railway lines are regularly patrolled by linesmen and Bangers. In the absence of evidence to the contrary, it is entitled to infer that one or more of them in the course of several weeks noticed what was plain for all to see. Anyone of common sense would realise the danger that the state of the fence so close to the live rail created for little children coming to the meadow to play. As the appellants elected to call none of the persons who patrolled the line there is nothing to rebut the inference that they did not lack the common sense to realise the danger. A court is accordingly entitled to infer from the inaction of the appellants that one or more of their employees decided to allow the risk to continue of some child crossing the boundary and being injured or killed by the live rail rather than to incur the trivial trouble and expense of repairing the gap in the fence.”

The courts have tended to recoil from some of the fiercer parts of this statement, which appear to convert open-ended speculation into findings of fact. There must be a reasonable basis for some hypothesis in the evidence or the inherent probabilities, before a court can draw useful inferences from a party’s failure to rebut it. For my part I would adopt, with a modification which I shall come to, the more balanced view expressed by Lord Lowry with the support of the rest of the committee in R v Inland Revenue Commissioners, Ex p TC Coombs & Co [1991] 2 AC 283, 300:

“In our legal system generally, the silence of one party in face of the other party’s evidence may convert that evidence into proof in relation to matters which are, or are likely to be, within the knowledge of the silent party and about which that party could be expected to give evidence. Thus, depending on the circumstances, a prima facie case may become a strong or even an overwhelming case. But, if the silent party’s failure to give evidence (or to give the necessary evidence) can be credibly explained, even if not entirely justified, the effect of his silence in favour of the other party may be either reduced or nullified.”

Cf. Wisniewski v Central Manchester Health Authority [1998] PIQR 324, 340.

  1. The modification to which I have referred concerns the drawing of adverse inferences in claims for ancillary financial relief in matrimonial proceedings, which have some important distinctive features. There is a public interest in the proper maintenance of the wife by her former husband, especially (but not only) where the interests of the children are engaged. Partly for that reason, the proceedings although in form adversarial have a substantial inquisitorial element. The family finances will commonly have been the responsibility of the husband, so that although technically a claimant, the wife is in reality dependent on the disclosure and evidence of the husband to ascertain the extent of her proper claim. The concept of the burden of proof, which has always been one of the main factors inhibiting the drawing of adverse inferences from the absence of evidence or disclosure, cannot be applied in the same way to proceedings of this kind as it is in ordinary civil litigation. These considerations are not a licence to engage in pure speculation. But judges exercising family jurisdiction are entitled to draw on their experience and to take notice of the inherent probabilities when deciding what an uncommunicative husband is likely to be concealing. I refer to the husband because the husband is usually the economically dominant party, but of course the same applies to the economically dominant spouse whoever it is.

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