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Report No. 69

III. Present English Law

74.9. The present position in England is that as a general rule, Courts may act on the testimony of a single witness, even though uncorroborated; or upon duly proved documentary evidence without such testimony at All1. And, where that testimony is unimpeached, they should act on it2, and need not leave its credit to the jury3. One credible witness outweighs any number of other witnesses.4'

This is subject, in the first place, to statutory exceptions and, in the second place, to those rules which, though non-statutory, have been evolved in the course of centuries as to the need for corroboration in particular cases.

1. Wright v. Tatham, 5 C&F 670.

2. Morrow v. Morrow, (1914) 2 IR 1834.

3. Davis v. Hardy, 2 B&C 225.

4. The Wega, 1895 Probate 156 (159).

74.10. Statutory provisions requiring corroborative evidence.-

The following may be cited as illustrations of cases in which corroboration is required by statutory provisions in England-

(a) Offences relating to places of public worship1;

(b) Personation at elections2;

(c) Perjury and allied offences3;

(d) Procuration of women or girls for prostitution or unlawful sexual intercourse, and administering drugs to facilitate intercourse4;

(e) Unsworn evidence of a child of tender years5-6;

(f) Affiliation proceedings7-8.

1. Places of Religious Worship Act, 1812.

2. Section 146(5), Representation of the People Act, 1949. (At least two credible witnesses are required).

3. Section 13(1), Perjury Act, 1911.

4. Sections 2, 3, 4, 22 and 23, Sexual Offences Act, 1956.

5. Section 38(1), Children and Young Persons Act, 1933.

6. See R. v. Campbell, (1956) 2 All ER 272.

7. Sections 4(2) and 8(2), Affiliation Proceedings Act, 1957.

8. See R. v. Nottingham Justices, (1970) 2 All ER 641.

74.11. Affiliation.-

The gist of the provisions in England in regard to affiliation is that on the hearing of a complaint by the mother of an illegitimate, child, a Magistrates court may, if the evidence of the mother is corroborated in some material particulars by other evidence to the satisfaction of the court, adjudge the defendant to be the punitive father and-make an affiliation order against him. An appeal lies to the Crown Court, but that court also cannot confirm the affiliation order or reverse the order of the Magistrate refusing an affiliation order unless the evidence of the mother is corroborated as above.

74.12. In bastardy cases, it was the rule of English common law that, before an order of affiliation can be made, the evidence of the mother must be corroborated in some material particular by other testimony. "This rule has been wisely established," says Taylor1, "in order to protect men from accusations which profligate, designing or interested women might easily make, and which however false, it might be extremely difficult to disprove."

1. Taylor, cited in Field.

74.13. Finally, section 2 of the Evidence Further Amendment Act, 18691, enacts that "the parties to an action for breach of promise of marriage shall be competent to give evidence in such action; provided always that no plaintiff in any action for breach of promise of marriage shall recover a verdict unless his or her testimony shall be corroborated by some other material evidence in support of such promise."

1. 32 & 33 Vict., cap. 68.

74.14. Besides the statutory rules requiring corroboration stated above, there are, in England, rules of the common law on corroboration. In the following cases, the warning to the jury as to the need for the corroboration is given as a matter of course, because experience has shown that it is always dangerous in those cases to act on uncorroborated evidence. These cases are-

(a) accomplices1;

(b) sexual offences-even in cases where there is no statutory provision requiring corroboration2;

(c) matrimonial causes-where a sexual offence is involved3, or where the proceedings are for a declaration of nullity, and impotence is alleged4;

(d) sworn evidence of children5;

(e) claims against the estates of deceased persons6, unless the circumstances are exceptiona7

1. Davies v. Director of Prosecution, 1954 AC 378 (HL).

2. R. v. Trigg, (1963) 1 WLR 305 (309).

3. Curtis v. Curtis, (1905) 21 Times Law Reports 616.

4. Hodgkins v. Hodgkins, 1950 Probate 183; as explained in Alli v. Alli, (1963) 3 All ER 480.

5. R. v. Mitchell, (1952) 36 Cr App Courts 79; R. v. Trigg, (1963) 1 WLR 305.

6. Re Hodson, (1885) 31 Chancery Division 177.

7. Thomas v. Times Book Company, (1966) 1 WLR 911.

74.15. Adultery.-

The reason why corroboration of the evidence of adultery is regarded as desirable in proceedings for divorce, is that a charge of this type is particularly difficult to rebut. Further, where the witness is the woman, the person who is making the accusation is in the same kind of position as the position of an accomplice1.

In Alli v. Alli, (1965) 3 All ER 480 (484), it was observed:

"In our opinion, therefore, there is abundant authority to support Sir Boyd Merriman, J.'s statement of the practice of the court in B. v. B., 1935 All ER Rep 429: 1935 Probate 83, namely, that the court demands that, when a matrimonial offence, whatever it is, is charged, if "possible the evidence of the spouse making the charge should be corroborated. To sum up, then, our view of the authorities so far:

(a) where a matrimonial offence is alleged, the court will look for corroboration of the complainant's own evidence; (b) the court will normally, before finding a matrimonial offence proved, require such corroboration if, on the face of the complainant's own evidence, it is available; (c) these are not rules of law, but of practice only. They spring from the gravity of the consequences of proof of a matrimonial offence; and because, he would add, experience has shown the risk of a miscarriage of justice in acting on the uncorroborated testimony of a spouse in this class of case; (d) it is, nevertheless, open to a court to act on the uncorroborated evidence of a spouse if it is in no doubt where the truth lies; (e) these statements are equally applicable to proceedings in courts of summary jurisdiction as to those in the High. Court."

1. Galler v. Galler, (1954) 1 All ER 536 (Court of Appeal).

74.16. It will be useful finally to refer to the observations of Lord Morris in a recent case-1

"LORD MORRIS OF BORTH-Y-GEST: The accumulated experience of courts of law, reflecting accepted general knowledge of the ways of the world, has shown that there are many circumstances and situations in which it is unwise to found settled conclusions on the testimony of one person alone. The reasons for this are diverse. There are some suggestions which can really be made but which are only with more difficulty rebutted. There may in some cases be motives of self-interest, or of self-exculpation, or of vindictiveness. In some situations the straight line of truth is diverted by the influences of emotion or of hysteria or of alarm or of remorse. Some times it may be that owing to immaturity or perhaps to lively imaginative gifts there is no true appreciation of the gulf that separates truth from falsehood.

It must, therefore, be sound policy to have rules of law or of practice which are designed to avert the peril that findings of guilt may be insecurely based. So it has come about that certain statutory enactments impose the necessity in some instances of having more than one witness before there can be a conviction. So also it has come about that in other instances the courts have given guidance in terms which have become rules. Included in such cases are those in which charges of sexual offences are made. It has long been recognised that juries should in such cases be told that there are dangers in convicting on the uncorroborated testimony of a complainant though they may convict if they are satisfied that the testimony is true.

As this is no mere idle process it follows that there are no set words which must be adopted to express the warning. Rather must the good sense of the matter be expounded with clarity and in the setting of a particular case. Also included in the types of cases above referred to are those in which children are witnesses. The common sense and the common experience of men and women on a jury will guide them when they have to decide what measure of credence and dependence they should accord to evidence which they have heard.

All the rules which have been evolved are in accord with the central principle of our criminal law that a person should only be convicted of a crime if those in whose hands decision rests are sure that guilt has been established. In England it has not been laid down that such certainly ought never to be reached in dependence upon the testimony of but one witness. It has, however, been recognised that the risk of danger of a wrong decision being reached is greater in certain circumstances than in others. It is where those circumstances exist that rules based upon experience, wisdom and common sense have been introduced."

1. Director of Public Prosecutions v. Hester, (1972) 3 All ER 1056.

Indian Evidence Act, 1872 Back

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