Tag Archives: proprietary estoppel

Don’t estop me now: credibility and comments on intelligence

-Warning: explicit Land Law content. If you do not want to read musings on land law, stop right now …

James v James [2018] EWHC 43 (Ch) http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWHC/Ch/2018/43.html

Having had a year away from land law teaching, I am catching up on recent cases, including this one on proprietary estoppel (as well as testamentary capacity). I am not going to say anything about the actual legal points, despite the fact that this is what I am supposed to be preparing, but will comment on another interesting aspect of the approved judgment: a tendency to elaborate upon and explain the decision making process in terms of views about individuals (I think of this as the Eggheads tendency – after the quiz show where people can’t just say the answer is b, they have to ‘talk us through’ the thought-process which has led to that conclusion).

There is detailed discussion of  various witnesses:  HHJ Paul Matthews does not restrict himself to saying he believes X or believes X more than Y, and some of this material seems to go beyond credibility and into intelligence or education. For example, one of the major characters was, the judge found,  ‘a slow but clear witness. He was not good at reading. He was dogmatic, sometimes rather contrary, and not good at following legal reasoning’. [8] And ‘For the most part, I think that [S.] had convinced himself that he was in the right, and interpreted all the material available to him in a way which demonstrated that he was. In some cases, I am afraid I think he went further, and told me things that were simply not true.’[9] Some of this is honesty/credibility-related, but calling somebody ‘slow’ and criticising their reading seems to go beyond that.

 

In relation to a group of female witnesses, the judge shared his impressions at [11] that two were ’quiet and calm’. One ‘rather shy but clear and straightforward, but another, while she ‘gave evidence in a quiet tone’ also ‘ avoided eye contact and her body language suggested internal conflict.’  Some material for consideration of appropriate female witness behaviour there, I think – plus signs of great self confidence on the judge’s part of his ability to ‘read’ mental state from ‘body language’. I am not entirely convinced that has a place in an official account like this. Another ‘good’ female witness was ‘loyal.. to her husband,’ but ‘distressed by the litigation and wanted it to be over’ [12]. Yet another female witness was ‘a slow witness, with clear, trenchant views’ [13].

 

In relation to an older female witness, there is some doubt, but it is not expressed in quite such critical terms: [14] ‘[S.J.], … although she often took her time to answer, was clear and decisive when she did. Despite her advancing years, she was generally very much on the ball. But she was confused as to [a particular point]. On the other hand, she had little or no trouble in following accounts. It is plain that she had a head for business. Sometimes her answer was that she could not remember things, though I noted that that was the answer more often given when the question was a difficult one, not susceptible of a simple answer in her side’s favour. She also appeared confused about [another point]. Her answers did not square with what she said in her witness statement…. I have accepted her evidence without reserve where corroborated by other independent evidence, but otherwise with more caution.’ The first part of this sounds a bit like ‘She’s marvellous, considering …’ – a little patronising?

 

Also interesting is the decision of the judge to mention his views as to the competence and intelligence of a female solicitor in the case: ‘She struck me as a highly competent, intelligent solicitor …’ [16] while in  dealing with a male solicitor-witness, [17], there was, apparently, no need to affirm his intelligence. Likewise the male experts were ‘as one would expect … highly professional’ [18]. Might have been best avoided?

 

Clearly, the format of a civil trial requires a judge to make decisions about credibility, and comments on parties are not new, but I do wonder how it helps to hear that the judge does not rate a party’s speed of thought, and whether the study of ‘body language’ is now a respected and scientific subject, taught at judge school.

For a contrasting approach, see another proprietary estoppel case, Habberfield v Habberfield [2018] EWHC 317 (Ch), in which the judge is much less … well … judgey about individuals, and almost entirely sticks to saying which evidence he prefers on particular points. We don’t learn who is intelligent and who is ‘slow’, and yet it doesn’t detract from our understanding …  [no idea why this bit has gone red!]