An extraordinary claim reported in The Times has rocked the legal profession in the UK.
Apparently we shouldn’t really trust witnesses’ memories.
What makes the conclusion even more shocking is we should be extra careful about relying on the memories of younger children, older adults and other vulnerable groups, as well as those with memories of traumatic events.
The British Psychological Society published these findings last week in a report entitled Memory and the Law. The report’s main author, Martin Conway of the University of Leeds, said:
“It is incorrect to think of memory ageing merely as increased forgetfulness. Older adults are more prone to false memories, because of an over reliance on the gist of an event, in the absence of more specific and accurate forms of remembering.”
This is all the more surprising because prosecutions for events that occurred in childhood and the removal of nuisance hoops like corroboration seem to have proliferated in the last 15 years.
But it’s not just weaknesses in memory that cause problems. Sometimes it’s vanity. The cuddly German philosopher, Nietzsche made a very shrewd observation. I put it in verse to help me remember it.
“I did this”, says my memory.
“How could I?” says my pride.
As pride remains inexorable
Memory yields. I lie.
Professor Conway suggests some guidelines to help those in the legal system evaluate evidence based on memory. Whither the judges?
He also recommends that courts use memory experts (witness experts rather than expert witnesses) to help evaluate memory-based evidence where, for example, it’s given by kiddies or an old codger.
What happened to fair prosecutors, a good-old rollicking cross-examination and a few stern warnings from the bench?
* * *
The recession in Great Britain is now starting to hurt.
For last financial year the struggling law firm Clifford Chance reported a turnover of £1,329,000,000. Its penurious rival, Linklaters, clocked up £1,293,000,000.
The 2007-2008 year was also brutal for cash-strapped partners.
The average annual profit per equity partner (PEP) at Freshfields was £1,484,000. However, at Clifford Chance they must be forking out a bit too much on photocopying because their PEP was a paltry £1,170,000.
The average PEP for the UK’s top 30 law firms grew by 92.7 percent to £764,000 between the years 2000 and 2008.
Still, The Lawyer (July 7 and July 14) proudly reports the big four – Clifford Chance, Linklaters, Freshfields and Allen & Overy – are leading the way for the UK and staving off the rapacious threat of the soulless American giants.
The Lawyer, not wishing to fawn, calls the top transatlantic firms The Sweet Sixteen.
The senior partner of Allen & Overy, David Morley (pic) told The Lawyer he could detect the emergence of a global elite.
“It’s a convenient phrase for describing the four international magic circle firms plus [US firms] Skadden and Latham.”
Managing partner of Simmons & Simmons Mark Dawkins gave a fascinating clue as to why his firm’s PEP had gone up 155 percent.
“For the past four years or so we’ve not been driven by the desire to grow size – we’ve been driven by the desire to grow profit, which in time should give us the platform to grow size.”
So now you know.
* * *
Julie-Ann Reed (pic), a 27 year old estate agent from Kingskerswell, Devon, had some good news this week.
After suffering depression caused by a seven year ordeal at the hands of her humiliating boss, Mr Gerald Probert, an understanding employment tribunal this week awarded Ms Reed £28,900.99 in damages.
She said that Probert had told her: “You should either reduce the size of your breasts or get some new blouses.”
He had also failed to pay her on time. When she complained, Gerald told her that her boyfriend should look after her and pay the household bills.
When she disagreed, she was fired.
The tribunal did not have the benefit of Mr Probert’s side of the story. He failed to front and was ordered to pay a further £3,055 in costs.
* * *
There’s a fair bit of King Midas in Prime Minister Gordon Brown.
For years, we’re told he plotted and connived and raged against Tony Blair hoping that his wish for the top job would come true.
It did, eventually, but there’s one significant difference with the king of Greek myth: everything Gordon touches doesn’t turn to gold. Another substance springs to mind.
The PM’s luck changed after he bottled out of calling an early election. David Cameron, then on the opinion poll ropes, delivered a superb speech, without notes, at the Tory party conference.
Ever since then, it’s all gone wrong for the Undertaker. He’s endured the run on Northern Rock, the lost discs with confidential information, and the London Mayoral Election and Crewe and Nantwich by-election losses.
But it’s little things that have been hurting him. He doesn’t have Blair’s uncanny ability to detect a lurking banana skin.
For instance, he was photographed with an ugly orange blotch on his forehead from smudged make-up and when he was pictured near the Olympic flame, it looked as if his hair was on fire.
The press also got a snap of him in front of a sign marked “EXIT” and there was that extraordinary attempt at planting a kiss on Carla Bruni-Sarkozy outside No. 10.
But one thing has been really unfair. The reptiles hissed and slithered when it was reported that he had fancied himself as Heathcliff in a New Statesman interview with Gloria De Piero.
The Guardian and others seized on some typical reactions.
The Liberal Democrat treasury spokesman Vince Cable said:
“Heathcliff may be dark and brooding but he is also ruthless and vindictive. He ended his life a broken and tormented man haunted by a ghost. Tony Blair perhaps?”
Andrew McCarthy, acting director of the Brontë Parsonage Museum in Haworth, Yorkshire told The Daily Telegraph:
“Heathcliff is a man prone to domestic violence, kidnapping, possible murder and digging up his dead lover. He is moody and unkind to animals. Is this really a good role model for the prime minister?”
Here is the excerpt from the interview with Gloria (pic). You be the judge:
“There is a human side to Gordon. He may be uncomfortable talking about himself, but on the train home our conversation is punctuated with laughter, and most of it is neither nervous nor insincere.
“Is he a romantic? I ask. ‘Ask Sarah’, he chuckles. Some women say you remind them of Heathcliff, I suggest. Brown is after all brooding and intense. ‘Absolutely correct’, he jokes. (My italics.) ‘Well, maybe an older Heathcliff, a wiser Heathcliff’.”
Perhaps we do need those witness experts after all.