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Credibility, corroboration and the cumulative effect in fact finding

Feature Articles

Cite as: September 2013 87 (9) LIJ, p.58

In witness credibility cases, the Court must take a global view of all of the evidence in support of a finding of fact.

By Glen Pauline

The adage “less is more” has no application when it comes to the body of evidence before a court. Practitioners know that, generally, the more evidence there is of a fact, the better the chances of success in court. In The Director, Office of the Fair Work Building Industry Inspectorate v Construction, Forestry Mining and Energy Union1 the Full Court of the Federal Court confirmed that a trial judge must consider the cumulative effect of each other witness’s corroborative evidence, in determining whether to accept or reject the evidence of each.

Background

Bendigo Scaffolding Pty Ltd (Bendigo) was a bricklaying contractor and hirer of scaffolding. It was managed by Mr Sawyer, a bricklayer, and had two other employees, neither of whom were members of the union, the CFMEU. Bendigo successfully tendered for the bricklaying job at an Epsom site where a Safeway supermarket and some shops were being constructed. The principal building contractor was Becon Constructions (Aust) Pty Ltd (Becon).

Mr Bell was a CFMEU organiser responsible for the region that included the Epsom site. A case was brought against the CFMEU and Mr Bell claiming Mr Bell had contravened ss44 and 45 of the Building Industry Improvement Act 2005 (Cth) by trying to coerce or apply undue pressure on Bendigo to make an enterprise agreement with the CFMEU, and by discriminating against Bendigo because it did not have such an agreement.

At trial, the contest was on the facts, and the credibility of witnesses was in issue. The applicant alleged that Mr Bell threatened Mr Sawyer in a telephone conversation saying that unless he signed an enterprise bargaining agreement (EBA), he would not be starting on the site. As a result of the threat, Bendigo withdrew its quotation to perform the works. It was also alleged that Mr Bell had made similar statements to the site manager of Becon on three occasions (once during a phone call and twice in person at the site), and to the project manager of Becon in one telephone conversation, which amounted to discrimination against Bendigo.

Four witnesses were called for the applicant. Mr Sawyer, the site manager and the project manager each gave evidence of Mr Bell making statements regarding the need for Bendigo to have an EBA in order to start on the site. Mrs Sawyer gave evidence of what Mr Sawyer told her following the phone call from Mr Bell, and about the preparation of a facsimile she sent to Becon which stated: “Received a call from CFMEU at approx 6pm stating I must have a EBA in place prior to starting on site”. The only witness called by the CFMEU in relation to the alleged contraventions was Mr Bell. His evidence was that he could not recall any of the discussions in question but that he was certain he would not have coerced Bendigo or discriminated against Bendigo as alleged.

The trial judge accepted Mr Bell’s evidence, and rejected the accounts of the five separate conversations given by Mr Sawyer, the site manager and the project manager. The applicant’s case was dismissed. The applicant appealed.

Grounds of appeal

On appeal, the appellant argued that the trial judge’s process of reasoning in fact finding was flawed because he had not taken into account that the testimonies of each of the applicant’s four witnesses corroborated each other’s evidence. It was argued that Mr Sawyer’s account of the conversation was more likely, given that the site manager and the project manager both gave evidence that Mr Bell had said something similar to them. Similarly the project manager’s evidence was more likely given that it was corroborated by the site manager’s evidence and Mr Sawyer’s evidence. That Mr Sawyer and the site manager gave very similar accounts of telephone conversations with Mr Bell that occurred at 5.50pm and 5.54pm was corroborative of both their testimonies.

Corroborative effect

The majority of the Full Court agreed that it was necessary for the trial judge to consider the corroborative effect of the evidence in order to discharge his obligation to consider all of the evidence. Besanko and Perram JJ said:

“A central strength of the appellant’s case was that it had the word of three people against one. Nowhere in the trial judge’s reasons is there any allowance for, or consideration of, that corroborative matter”.2

“The need to keep in mind the cumulative effect of the evidence is apparent, too, in the principles which govern the approach in cases concerned with circumstantial evidence, that is, where proof of a primary fact is pursued through the demonstration of a range of intermediate facts. It has been stressed often enough in that context that the fact-finding process is directed at the totality of the evidence and not to its individual strands”.3

Although this was a direct evidence case (with regard to the statements allegedly made by Mr Bell), and not a circumstantial evidence case, the majority said that “the principles in play are not altogether dissimilar. In both kinds of cases, the evidence has a probative value beyond merely the direct fact which it is elicited to prove”.4

State Rail Authority of New South Wales v Earthline Constructions Pty Ltd

The principle relied upon by the appellant and the majority of the Full Court stemmed from the High Court’s decision in State Rail Authority of New South Wales v Earthline Constructions Pty Ltd5 (Earthline). In that case, State Rail Authority of New South Wales (SRA) engaged Earthline Constructions Pty Ltd (Earthline) and Nuline Constructions Pty Ltd (Nuline) to supply plant to enable track repairs and earthworks to be done. SRA alleged that it had made payments to Earthline and Nuline and private contractors based on work dockets containing materially false entries concerning the hire of the plant. SRA alleged that the work dockets contained fictitious operator names, identified employees who did not actually operate the nominated plant, and referred to plant that did not exist.

Mrs Page, an ex-employee of Earthline, was the primary witness. She had been a site secretary and gave evidence about the creation of the dockets with false entries by her, using false names and false signatures, upon the direction of her superiors at Earthline. Other evidence presented by SRA in support of the falsification included:

  • Ms Packham, another employee of Earthline, who created false entries in the docket books and signed them in the name of the stated operator at the direction of her superiors;
  • Mrs Meek, the secretary who observed Ms Packham and others signing dockets using the name of the operator on it;
  • Wage records and lists of employees; and
  • A Coopers & Lybrand report analysing the dockets.

Earthline and Nuline called no evidence to answer the claims of SRA.

Mrs Page’s evidence was rejected by the trial judge, who made findings concerning her credibility including that she was “evasive” and “argumentative” and “did not present well”.6 SRA’s claims against Earthline and Nuline were largely rejected.

SRA appealed to the Court of Appeal, which was dismissed, and then appealed to the High Court. The sole ground of appeal to the High Court was that the Court of Appeal “erred in failing to hold that the trial judge was not entitled to reject the evidence of the principal witnesses called by the SRA in circumstances where their evidence was inherently probable, had not been denied or answered in evidence by the respondents, had not been directly challenged in cross-examination by the respondents and had been substantially corroborated by the respondent’s own documents”.7

The High Court found that the trial judge had erred. Gaudron, Gummow and Hayne JJ said at [62]–[64]:

“. . . the trial judge failed to give sufficient attention to all the evidence of the case, especially that of Mrs Meek and Ms Packham, as well as the extensive documentary evidence, in evaluating the evidence of Mrs Page.

“It is true that the trial judge, in determining whether to accept the evidence of Mrs Page, was heavily swayed by his impression of her while giving oral evidence. However, this circumstance does not preclude a court of appeal from concluding that, in light of other evidence, a primary judge had too fragile a base to support a finding that a witness was unreliable. The documentary evidence in this case, comprising unchallenged affidavit material of Mrs Meek and Ms Packham, the wage records and related documents of Earthline and Nuline, the list of plant (at least in relation to machine No 59) and the analysis of Coopers & Lybrand (in respect of the duplicity claims), provides significant support to the allegations made by Mrs Page.

“. . . these were matters to which weight was not given either by the trial judge or the Court of Appeal. The substance of the matter is that there has not yet been a determination of the SRA’s case upon a consideration of the real strength of the body of evidence it presented”.

Earthline principle

In Earthline, the corroborative evidence of Ms Packham and Mrs Meek was uncontradicted. However, the majority of the Full Court considered the Earthline principle to be applicable to the case before it, even though the corroborative evidence of the site manager and project manager was contradicted by Mr Bell. Besanko and Perram JJ said at [70]–[71]:

“The point is that a trial court must consider the evidence as a whole including, where relevant, how that evidence internally relates to itself . . . One of the strengths of the appellant’s case was that the three witnesses all contended that Mr Bell had made statements to them of a particular kind. One finding consistent with that evidence was that they had all given that evidence because, in fact, it had been said. Further, if one were to accept that Mr Bell had said such things in one of the conversations, that made it much more likely that they had been said in the others. Consequently, as in Earthline, the evidence of each of Mr Sawyer, the foreman and the project manager was corroborative of the evidence of each of the others”.

Comment

In both cases, the dismissal of the claims at first instance was due to a rejection of the evidence of the key witnesses. However, the poor performance of one key witness in court might belie the strength of the case as a whole. An appeal against a judge’s finding of fact, or credibility findings, is notoriously difficult. However, where a trial judge has failed to stand back and take a global view of all of the evidence in support of a finding of fact, including contested corroborative witness evidence and documents, before deciding whether to find the facts asserted, the trial process may have miscarried. An injustice may have been done. A new trial beckons.8



GLEN PAULINE is a member of the Victorian Bar practising in workplace relations and commercial litigation. He appeared with Richard Maidment SC at trial and with Justin Bourke SC on appeal. The numbers in square brackets in the text refer to the paragraph numbers in the judgment.

1. [2013] FCAFC 8 (Bromberg J dissenting).

2. Note 1 above at [73].

3. Note 1 above at [74]

4. Note 1 above at [75].

5. (1999) 160 ALR 588.

6. Note 5 above at [38].

7. Note 5 above at [61].

8. A new trial was ordered in both Earthline and The Director, Office of the Fair Work Building Industry Inspectorate v Construction, Forestry Mining and Energy Union.

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