PROOF OF FACTS: THE BASIC PRINCIPLES SUMMARISED (BORROWING FROM THE FAMILY COURTS)

In a short judgment BR (Proof of Facts) [2015] EWFC 41 Mr Justice Peter Jackson provides a summary of key issues in relation to evidence. The judgment is specifically in relation fact finding in children cases. However part of the judgment,  “proof of facts”,  provides a very useful reminder to civil practitioners.

“Proof of facts

  1. The court acts on evidence, not speculation or assumption. It acts on facts, not worries or concerns.
  2. Evidence comes in many forms. It can be live, written, direct, hearsay, electronic, photographic, circumstantial, factual, or by way of expert opinion. It can concern major topics and small details, things that are important and things that are trivial.
  3. The burden of proving a fact rests on the person who asserts it.
  4. The standard of proof is the balance of probabilities: Is it more likely than not that the event occurred? Neither the seriousness of the allegation, nor the seriousness of the consequences, nor the inherent probabilities alters this.

(1) Where an allegation is a serious one, there is no requirement that the evidence must be of a special quality. The court will consider grave allegations with proper care, but evidence is evidence and the approach to analysing it remains the same in every case. In my view, statements of principle (some relied on in this case) that suggest that an enhanced level of evidential cogency or clarity is required in order to prove a very serious allegation do not assist and may lead a fact-finder into error. Despite all disclaimers, reference to qualitative concepts such as cogency and clarity may wrongly be taken to imply that some elevated standard of proof is called for.(2) Nor does the seriousness of the consequences of a finding of fact affect the standard to which it must be proved. Whether a man was in a London street at a particular time might be of no great consequence if the issue is whether he was rightly issued with a parking ticket, but it might be of huge consequence if he has been charged with a murder that occurred that day in Paris. The evidential standard to which his presence in the street must be proved is nonetheless the same.

(3) The court takes account of any inherent probability or improbability of an event having occurred as part of a natural process of reasoning. But the fact that an event is a very common one does not lower the standard of probability to which it must be proved. Nor does the fact that an event is very uncommon raise the standard of proof that must be satisfied before it can be said to have occurred.

(4) Similarly, the frequency or infrequency with which an event generally occurs cannot divert attention from the question of whether it actually occurred. As Mr Rowley QC and Ms Bannon felicitously observe:

“Improbable events occur all the time. Probability itself is a weak prognosticator of occurrence in any given case. Unlikely, even highly unlikely things, do happen. Somebody wins the lottery most weeks; children are struck by lightning. The individual probability of any given person enjoying or suffering either fate is extremely low.”

I agree. It is exceptionally unusual for a baby to sustain so many fractures, but this baby did. The inherent improbability of a devoted parent inflicting such widespread, serious injuries is high, but then so is the inherent improbability of this being the first example of an as yet undiscovered medical condition. Clearly, in this and every case, the answer is not to be found in the inherent probabilities but in the evidence, and it is when analysing the evidence that the court takes account of the probabilities.

  1. Each piece of evidence must be considered in the context of the whole. The medical evidence is important, and the court must assess it carefully, but it is not the only evidence. The evidence of the parents is of the utmost importance and the court must form a clear view of their reliability and credibility.
  2. When assessing alternative possible explanations for a medical finding, the court will consider each possibility on its merits. There is no hierarchy of possibilities to be taken in sequence as part of a process of elimination. If there are three possibilities, possibility C is not proved merely because possibilities A and B are unlikely, nor because C is less unlikely than A and/or B. Possibility C is only proved if, on consideration of all the evidence, it is more likely than not to be the true explanation for the medical findings. So, in a case of this kind, the court will not conclude that an injury has been inflicted merely because known or unknown medical conditions are improbable: that conclusion will only be reached if the entire evidence shows that inflicted injury is more likely than not to be the explanation for the medical findings.
  3. Lastly, where there is a genuine dispute about the origin of a medical finding, the court should not assume that it is always possible to know the answer. It should give due consideration to the possibility that the cause is unknown or that the doctors have missed something or that the medical finding is the result of a condition that has not yet been discovered. These possibilities must be held in mind to whatever extent is appropriate in the individual case.

One comment

  1. It is interesting that there is some tension between the approach to serious allegations set out in paragraph 7(1) here and that of Males J in NA v Nottinghamshire County Council [2014] EWHC 4005 (QB) at [158]:

    “Accordingly I find the allegation of sexual abuse against Mr B proved. I should make clear that in considering this allegation, and indeed the allegation of physical abuse against Mrs A, I have applied the civil standard of proof, that is to say the balance of probabilities, but I have done so bearing in mind the seriousness of the allegations and have therefore applied the approach described by Lord Nicholls in In re H (Minors) (Sexual Abuse: Standard of Proof) [1996] AC 563 at 586, as endorsed by the House of Lords in In re B (Children) [2008] UKHL 35, [2009] 1 AC 11:

    ‘The balance of probability standard means that a court is satisfied an event occurred if the court considers that, on the evidence, the occurrence of the event was more likely than not. When assessing the probabilities the court will have in mind as a factor, to whatever extent is appropriate in the particular case, that the more serious the allegation the less likely it is that the event occurred and, hence, the stronger should be the evidence before the court concludes that the allegation is established on the balance of probability. Fraud is usually less likely than negligence. …’”

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