The whole truth?

Published on: 1 June 2019

"Whose truth, whose lies?" is the title of an album by blues singer Douglas Macleod. During almost 50 years in the law as a practitioner, coroner and tribunal judge, William Armstrong has been engaged in seeking the truth, but whose truth? What truth?

I once asked a witness to take the oath in court, whereupon she took the Bible in her hand and said, “I swear by Almighty God that I will speak the truth, the whole truth and anything but the truth.” A Freudian slip, or perhaps not!

The oath in court, to tell the truth, is a solemn procedure although it is no guarantee of veracity. Witnesses have the option of affirming to tell the truth without invoking any deity.

The object of a criminal trial is not in fact to establish the truth. Instead, it is to ascertain whether the case has been proved beyond reasonable doubt. An acquittal means that the charge has not been proved. It is not a declaration of truth.

A defending lawyer’s duty is to represent the client in accordance with their instructions. It is no part of the lawyer’s function to decide the truth. That is for the court.

There is one court, however, where the process is not adversarial but inquisitorial – the object is to seek the truth. That is the coroner’s court. Most people attending the coroner’s court simply want to get at the truth – to help them move on with their journey of bereavement.

But some people cannot accept the truth. This may happen, for example, where a person has died from an avoidable natural condition, but the family have convinced themselves that the death was the direct fault of someone. The coroner must not allow his or her sympathy for the relatives to deflect from the duty to establish the truth. People cannot insist that their own constructed version of the truth is accepted.

Sadly, the truth can be elusive. The evidence may not permit a reliable conclusion to be reached. The coroner must try to help the loved ones to live with the fact that the cause of death may remain a mystery. Not easy.

What have I learned from all this that might inform the practice of my Christian vocation?

Firstly, the truth declared by any legal process may be partial. Human justice may be fallible and imperfect. As St Paul says, we “see through a glass darkly,”

Secondly, even those who seek to deny, evade or distort the truth, however troublesome they may be for those who administer the law, are not beyond the grace of God.

Finally, the task of those entrusted with ascertaining the truth in our courts is one which must be exercised with humility – recognising that we are all accountable for the way we seek the truth to God who is the ultimate source of all truth.

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