When you eliminate the impossible .

. . whatever is left, however improbable, must be the truth.

So it is said (echoing directly Sherlock Holmes) in an advert for a current detective series. In logic, it is undeniable, but as a fundamental truth it is unhelpful. It acknowledges that things need not be what they seem to be (‘however improbable’) – we should challenge whatever it is that seems to suggest that whatever is left is true but improbable.

As a piece of advice it fails however because it suggests that we can generally and assuredly know ‘what is impossible’ to some higher and simpler standard.

My own view is that the assumption that we are able to know with any kind of security just what is impossible is unsafe. The question is of relevance both to those involved as detectives and as legal representatives. The lawyer’s job is exactly to take the facts as presented, and to look at those facts from all available angles to test the assumptions which have been applied to whatever goes together to make the case before them. It is not a question of twisting the facts, but it is sometimes a fine line between that and re-presenting the alleged facts.

In any event, the real point is that for the maxim to be valid, the questioner must be immensely careful not to apply different tests to the facts found impossible to those found improbable but true. When we feel the need to retest ‘what is improbable’ for possible truth, we must make the same investigation as to what was deemed impossible.

We live in a very complicated world. Facts rarely stand by themselves, and are rarely as simple as they may appear. A good lawyer should always be looking for a different angle, but should be reluctant to accept a too easy identification of what is impossible.