Document Type

Working Paper

Repository Date



presence, demeanor, hearings, trial on the papers, fact-finding, procedural justice, bias, deception

Subject Categories

Civil Procedure | Courts | Dispute Resolution and Arbitration | Evidence | Judges | Law | Litigation


This article explores a constantly recurring procedural question: When is fact-finding improved by a live hearing, and when would it be better to rely on a written record? Unfortunately, when judges, lawyers, and rulemakers consider this issue, they are led astray by the widely shared—but false—assumption that a judge can best determine issues of credibility by viewing the demeanor of witnesses while they are testifying. In fact, a large body of scientific evidence indicates that judges are more likely to be deceived by lying or mistaken witnesses when observing their testimony in person than if the judges were to review a paper transcript of the testimony. Witness presence, in other words, may often harm, rather than improve, the accuracy of credibility assessments. The fact that legal actors value hearings for mistaken reasons does not mean that hearing have no value, but it does raise the concern that hearings will be employed when they are unneeded or even harmful, especially given the lack of available guidance on this question. In this article, I attempt to remedy this problem by providing a sound set of guiding principles concerning both the utility and the harms of live hearings.

Hearings will often, but not always, do more harm than good. In addition to the fact that demeanor cues generally impair, rather than aid, credibility judgments, there are a number of cognitive biases that may arise from having one's first impressions of a witness be visual and auditory impressions. These include a persistent human tendency to trust or distrust witnesses based on their physical attractiveness, their social status, their race, or other features that may make them similar to, or different than, the fact-finder. On the flip side, hearings may help a judge make sense of confusing evidence. In addition, live hearings often feel fairer to participants than paper-based decisions, due in large part to the desire to have expressive input in decisions that affect us. And sometimes, a live hearing may be preferable for reasons of cost or practicality.