For a long time the civil courts were hidebound by the rule in Hollington v Hewthorn  KB 587, that evidence of a criminal conviction was not admissible in evidence in a civil court. A fortiori the decision of a coroner’s court or any other tribunal – Bird v Keep  2KB 692. But the actual decision in Hollington v Hewthorn was reversed by Civil Evidence Act 1968 s. 11, so that in civil proceedings one can rely on a conviction as evidence that an offence was committed.
But the remaining law with regard to the findings of other bodies has remained unchanged until now, despite the enactment of Civil Evidence Act 1995, which rendered hearsay evidence admissible. So the results of investigations, even by the most distinguished experts in the field, have been ruled inadmissible in civil proceedings – Three Rivers DC v. Bank of England  2AC 1.
But things are changing. In the recent decision of the Court of Appeal in Rogers v Hoyle  3 WLR 148 the decision of Leggatt J was upheld that the findings following an investigation of an independent body of experts were admissible in civil proceedings.
The body was the air accident investigation branch of the Department of Transport, known as the AAIB. Their intervention was the result of a fatal accident. The aircraft involved was a vintage Tiger Moth bi-plane. Mr Hoyle had taken Mr Rogers up for a trip in the plane. He then attempted to loop the loop at an altitude of about 1500 ft but lost control of the aircraft, which entered into a spin and crashed in a field. Mr Rogers was killed. His dependants claimed that Mr Hoyle was negligent. Mr Hoyle asserted that he was not at fault, because the rudder pedals had jammed.
The dependants gave notice that they were going to rely on the AAIB report into the accident as hearsay evidence at the trial of their claim. That report was the result of a thorough investigation of all the circumstances and interviews with all available witnesses, including Mr Hoyle, and a detailed examination of the wreckage and a post mortem of the deceased. They had finally come to a series of conclusions about the probable causes of the accident, conclusions which, if accepted by a court, would lead to a finding of negligence on the part of Mr Hoyle.
It was held that the entire report was admissible in evidence. The report contained statements of fact to and by and the opinions of its authors, who were experts in their respective fields. The statements of fact were prima facie admissible. A court could give regard to the expressions of opinion and give such weight to them as it thought fit. The reports of the AAIB were the result of an impartial investigation and it had much greater ability than anyone else to obtain and analyse data relating such an accident.
This decision seems to me to have a considerable potential impact. The same principle must surely apply to the investigation by the fire service of the cause of a fire or by the HSE of an industrial accident. The evidence collected by them and their inferences from it would not of course be conclusive, but it would clearly be helpful, particularly when, as so often happens, the witnesses have vanished when the solicitors commence investigations.
There are still certain areas where difficulties may be encountered, eg in relation to marine accident investigations. By Merchant Shipping (Accident Reporting & Regulation) Regulations 2012 reg. 14(14), the admissibility of reports of such investigations as to issues of liability is excluded unless the court “determines otherwise”. In the light of Rogers v Hoyle, courts may well determine otherwise.
JOHN M COLLINS