Powell v Streatham Manor Nursing Home: HL 1935

Where the Judge at the trial has come to a conclusion upon the question which of the witnesses, whom he has seen and heard, are trustworthy and which are not, he is normally in a better position to judge of this matter than the appellate tribunal can be: and the appellate tribunal will generally defer to the conclusion which the Trial Judge has formed. However, the probabilities and possibilities of a case may impel an appellate court to depart from the opinion of the trial Judge formed upon his assessment of witnesses whom he has seen and heard in the witness box.
Different meanings can be given to the word ‘rehearing’ even when used in connection with an appeal from one court to another.
Lord Wright said: ‘I think that it is difficult, if not impossible, to seek to lay down any precise rule to solve the problem which faces the Court of Appeal when it has to act as a judge of fact on the rehearing, but finds itself ‘in a permanent position of disadvantage as against the trial judge’. In truth, it is not desirable, in my opinion, to do more than state, as I think Lord Sumner was stating, principles which will guide the appellate Court in the majority of such cases. The problem in truth only arises in cases where the judge has found crucial facts on his impression of the witnesses: many, perhaps most cases, turn on inferences from facts which are not in doubt, or on documents: in all such cases the appellate Court is in as good a position to decide as the trial judge. But where the evidence is conflicting and the issue is one of fact depending on evidence, any judge who has had experience of trying cases with witnesses cannot fail to realize the truth of what Lord Sumner says: as the evidence proceeds through examination, cross-examination and re-examination the judge is gradually imbibing almost instinctively, but in fact as a result of close attention and of long experience, an impression of the personality of the witness and of his trustworthiness and of the accuracy of his observation and memory or the reverse. He will not necessarily distrust a witness simply because he finds him inaccurate in some details: he can give such inaccuracy its proper place, particularly if he sees that the witness is tired, or antagonized, or confused, or perhaps impatient, and especially if the matter of the inaccuracy is of minor or collateral importance. But such inaccuracies may appear in a very different light when pointed to as isolated passages in the shorthand notes and abstracted from the human atmosphere of the trial and from the totality of the evidence. The judge will form his impression from the whole personality of the witness: he can allow for the nervous witness, standing up in a crowded Court or worried by the strain of cross-examination. The judge may be deceived by an adroit and plausible knave or by apparent innocence: for no man is infallible; but in the main a careful and conscientious judge with his experience of courts is as likely to be correct in his impressions as any tribunal, unless perhaps, as some would say, a jury of twelve members is preferable.’


Lord Macmillan, Viscount Sankey LC, Lord Atkin, Lord Wright


[1935] AC 243, [1935] All ER 38, (1935) 152 LT 563, (1935) 104 LJKB 304


England and Wales


ApprovedClarke v Edinburgh and District Tramways Co HL 1919
The House considered the ability of an appellate court to reconsider the facts.
Held: The privileges enjoyed by a trial judge extend not only to questions of credibility.
Lord Shaw said that the judge enjoys ‘those advantages, sometimes . .
ApprovedSS Hontestroom v SS Sagaporack HL 1927
The court discussed the weight to be given by an appellate court to findings of fact made by the court of first instance.
Held: Not to have seen the witnesses puts appellate judges in a permanent position of disadvantage as against the trial . .

Cited by:

CitedBenmax v Austin Motor Co Ltd HL 1955
Except for cases which are expressly limited to questions of law, an appellant is entitled to appeal from the Court of Session to the House against any finding, whether it be a finding of law, a finding of fact or a finding involving both law and . .
CitedWhitehouse v Jordan HL 17-Dec-1980
The plaintiff sued for brain damage suffered at birth by use of forceps at the alleged professional negligence of his doctor. The Court of Appeal had reversed the judge’s finding in his favour.
Held: In this case most of the evidence at issue . .
CitedHussain v Hussain and Another CA 23-Oct-2012
The claimant appealed against rejection of his claim for damages after a car accident. The defendants argued that the claim was fraudulent. The defendant driver had been involved in other collisions found to be fraudulent. The claimant appealed . .
CitedThe Queen v Crawford PC 11-Nov-2015
From the Court of Appeal of the Cayman Islands – The crown appealed against the quashing of the respondent’s conviction for possession of an unlicensed firearm. A gun was found where he had been seen to discard a gun whilst being chased. The . .
Lists of cited by and citing cases may be incomplete.

Litigation Practice

Updated: 29 April 2022; Ref: scu.187271