Hamid v (1) Khalid & (2) Co-operative Insurance Society General Insurance Ltd [2017] EWCA Civ 201

Background

In this case the second defendant insurer appealed against a county court judgment that a road traffic accident had occurred which entitled the claimant to recover damages from the first defendant, who was their insured.

Although the substantive case was in respect of a road traffic accident, the principles applied by the Court of Appeal in respect of findings of fact are also applicable to casualty claims.

Facts

The claimant alleged that the first defendant was liable for a road traffic accident which had caused them to sustain injuries. After a three day trial during which the judge had the benefit of reviewing expert engineering and medical evidence, the second defendant’s allegations of fraud were rejected. The trial judge also rejected the second defendant’s contention that even in the absence of fraud, the claimant had not made out their case on the balance of probabilities, because the claimant and first defendant had, on balance, provided honest and truthful evidence.

The second defendant appealed to the Court of Appeal submitting that the trial judge had erred in their findings and in the adequacy of their reasoning for reaching their decision.

Decision

The Court of Appeal held that there were a number of principles which should guide an appellate court when asked to overturn a trial judge’s finding of fact. It was reiterated that an appellate court should not interfere with a trial judge’s conclusions on primary facts, unless satisfied that the judge was “plainly wrong”.

It was concluded that a decision under appeal had to be one that no reasonable judge could have reached, and their findings of facts would only be interfered with, if the appellate court was satisfied that the decision could not be reasonably explained or justified. Further, the Court of Appeal stated that appellate courts should not interfere with findings of fact unless compelled to do so.

Although there were inconsistencies in the evidence, which could mean that a different judge would have been persuaded to reach a different conclusion, the Court of Appeal held that this was not relevant when considering if a trial judge’s findings of facts could be overturned.

The Court of Appeal made clear that the task of a trial judge was hard enough, without having to deal expressly with every single piece of evidence, or alleged inconsistency with the evidence which may emerge in the course of the trial. If such a requirement was to be imposed on a trial judge then it was held that their task would become more difficult, judgments would become longer and the time taken to produce these judgments would increase.

The trial judge in this case had provided an immediate judgment when all of the evidence was fresh in their mind. The Court of Appeal therefore concluded that it would be wrong to infer that they had failed to discharge their task properly, just because they did not refer to every alleged inconsistency with the evidence in their judgment.

The Court of Appeal stated that an appellate court had to resist the temptation to think that it could safely second-guess the view formed by the trial judge when they were the one who had heard and seen all of the evidence. It was also held that a detailed and apparently credible account of the general accident circumstances had been provided by a key witness and the evaluation of this evidence was essentially a matter for the trial judge. It was noted that the second defendant did not have a positive case to advance in respect of how the accident had been allegedly staged.

As a result, the Court of Appeal held that the trial judge had appropriately dealt with the evidence and it could not be reasonably concluded that they had erred or unreasonably come to the decision that the claimant had proven their case, on the balance of probabilities.

What this means for you

This case importantly shows that the appellate courts will only (in exceptional and very limited circumstances) interfere with a trial judge’s conclusions in respect of the primary facts of a case unless they are satisfied that the trial judge was “plainly wrong”. In this case, the second defendant had no positive evidence to support their allegations that the claim was staged, and it was held that the trial judge had based their decision on all of the facts and in particular on a key witness that had come across as being credible when providing evidence.

As a result of this case, it is unlikely that a trial judge’s decision in respect of the primary facts can be successfully challenged, unless they have provided a decision that cannot be justified in any way shape or form. It should be noted that just because another judge may have reached a different conclusion, is not enough for an appellate court to intervene and overturn a trial judge’s findings on the facts.

In cases where findings of facts are being challenged, it is essential to show that fundamental evidence has not been considered and that the decision reached by the trial judge is completely incomprehensible and unjustifiable.

Although this decision was disappointing for the second defendant, it does show that the appellate courts are reluctant to intervene in these types of cases and will allow trial judge’s to have a large amount of discretion in respect of the findings made, as long as there is sufficient justification and plausibility regarding why the decision was reached. Further, it is important to note that the courts have to be satisfied “on the balance of probabilities” so there is clearly some scope regarding how they reach their decisions and exercise their judicial discretion.