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.

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For more information on:

  • Supporting evidence
  • The accused’s silence