The Turnbull guidelines

The Court of Appeal in Turnbull [1977] QB 224

In response to widespread concern over the problems posed by cases of mistaken identification, the Court of Appeal in Turnbull [1977] QB 224 laid down important guidelines for judges in trials that involve disputed identification evidence.

The guidelines

Where the case against an accused depends wholly or substantially on the correctness of one or more identifications of the accused – which the defence alleges to be mistaken – the judge should warn the jury of the special need for caution before convicting the accused in reliance on the correctness of the identification(s). The judge should tell the jury that:

  • caution is required to avoid the risk of injustice;
  • a witness who is honest may be wrong even if they are convinced they are right;
  • a witness who is convincing may still be wrong;
  • more than one witness may be wrong;
  • a witness who recognises the defendant, even when the witness knows the defendant very well, may be wrong.

The judge should direct the jury to examine the circumstances in which the identification by each witness can be made. Some of these circumstances may include:

  • the length of time the accused was observed by the witness;
  • the distance the witness was from the accused;
  • the state of the light;
  • the length of time elapsed between the original observation and the subsequent identification to the police.


It is commonly accepted that recognition is more reliable than identification of a stranger; however, even when the witness appears to recognise someone he knows, the jury should be reminded that mistakes in recognition of close relatives and friends are sometimes made.

Quality of evidence

If the quality is good and remains good at the close of the accused’s case, the danger of a mistaken identification is lessened; but the poorer the quality, the greater the danger. When, in the judgment of the trial judge, the quality of the identifying evidence is poor, the judge should withdraw the case from the jury and direct an acquittal, unless there is other evidence which supports the correctness of the identification. The trial judge needs tell the jury which evidence they believe is capable of supporting the evidence of identification.

If there is any evidence or circumstances which the jury might think was supporting when it did not actually have this quality, the judge should say so.

Scope of the Turnbull guidelines

A Turnbull direction need not be provided unless the prosecution case depends wholly or substantially on visual identification. The absence of an adequate Turnbull direction, tailored to the facts of the particular case, will usually require a conviction to be quashed as unsafe. Where the principle or sole means of defence is a challenge to the credibility of the identifying witness, there may be exceptional cases in which a full Turnbull warning is unnecessary or may be given more briefly than in a case where the accuracy of identification is challenged.

Paying lip service to the guidelines will not be enough, nor will it suffice to give a general warning without detailed references to any particular circumstances that may have affected the accuracy of the witnesses’ observation. However, the guidelines do not require the slavish use of a rigid form of words in every case and a judge may properly point out that a mistaken identification does not necessarily prove that the accused is innocent or that the witness is untrustworthy in other respects, especially if his view of the crime was imperfect.

The guidelines may also need to be followed in cases the disputed identification of an alleged accomplice and an inadequate direction in respect of the evidence against one accused may render unsafe the conviction of another, although this will depend on the circumstances of the particular case. The guidelines are not applicable to cases involving the identification of motor vehicles.

Supporting evidence

Evidence capable of supporting a disputed identification may take any admissible form, including self-incrimination by the accused, similar fact evidence and other evidence of identification. A judge must identify evidence that is capable of providing such support and warn the jury against reliance on anything that might appear supportive without really having that capability.

The jury should be told that just because it has been proved that the defendant lied about where they were at the relevant time does not automatically prove they were committing the offence. However, if the jury is satisfied that the sole reason for the false alibi was to deceive them, that can provide support for identification.

Where a judge decides the identification evidence in a case is of such poor quality that they would not have left the case to the jury in the absence of supporting evidence, there is no obligation on them to warn the jury that they should not convict on the basis of the evidence of identification alone, should they reject the supporting evidence.

The accused’s silence

An accused’s failure to testify must not be viewed as capable of supporting the evidence against him. The failure of the accused:

  • to mention facts when questioned or charged which are later relied upon in his defence;
  • to account for objects in his possession or substances or marks on his body or clothing;
  • to account for his presence at a particular place; or
  • to testify at his trial,

may each entitle the court or jury to ‘draw such inferences as appear proper’. They do not, in themselves, constitute evidence of guilt and should not be seen as a substitute for satisfactory identification evidence. However, the absence of testimony or explanation from the accused may legitimately enable a court or jury to infer that the prosecution evidence is correct and that the accused has no answer to it.

About the Author

Nicola Laver LLB

Nicola is a dual qualified journalist and non-practising solicitor. She is a legal journalist, editor and author with more than 20 years' experience writing about the law.

When you submit your details, you'll be in safe hands. Our partners are National Accident Helpline (a brand of National Accident Law, a firm of personal injury solicitors regulated by the Solicitors Regulation Authority). They are the UK's leading personal injury service. Their friendly legal services advisers will call you to talk about your claim and give you free, no-obligation advice. National Accident Law may pay us a marketing fee for our services.

By submitting your personal data, you agree for your details to be sent to National Accident Law so they can contact you to discuss your claim.

If you win your case, your solicitor's success fee will be taken from the compensation you are awarded - up to a maximum of 25%. Your solicitor will discuss any fees before starting your case.