The Power of Perspectives

The Canadian Bar Association

Vincent Denault

The practice

Assessing credibility through body language

By Vincent Denault April 13, 2016 13 April 2016

“Each charge presented against Mr. Ghomeshi is based entirely on the evidence of the complainant. Given the nature of the allegations this is not unusual or surprising; however it is significant because, as a result, the judgment of this Court depends entirely on an assessment of the credibility and the reliability of each complainant as a witness.”

That statement by Justice William B. Horkins was central to Jian Ghomeshi’s acquittal on sexual assault charges in March.

Leaving aside the debate around false memories, the ruling is an opportunity to revisit some questions about our justice system’s ability in assessing the credibility of witnesses.

Are police officers, prosecutors and trial judges well equipped and knowledgeable enough on this count? Research suggests that they are probably not. The science shows that there is no known pattern of behaviour that is entirely reliable when trying to detect whether people are lying, or for that matter when they are telling the truth.

Unfortunately, the research also suggests that legal professionals approach lie detection and credibility in a manner that fits poorly with the current state of scientific knowledge.

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Vincent Denault is a Montreal-based lawyer and consultant. His practice and research focus on nonverbal communication, credibility assessment, and deception detection. He is a lecturer and doctoral student at the University of Montreal’s Department of Communication and the codirector of Montreal’s Center for Studies in Nonverbal Communication Sciences.

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