Page last updated at 17:09 GMT, Monday, 7 September 2009 18:09 UK

Women judge, but do they convict?

By Sudeep Chand
Science reporter, BBC News, Guildford

Old Bailey (BBC)
The findings could challenge the assumptions behind legal tests

Women are more likely to view someone as dishonest, but are less likely to convict, suggests an online study on attitudes to theft called Honesty lab.

And only 42.9% of people think that it is dishonest for a carer to pressure an elderly lady to change her will.

"There is no consensus on what is dishonest," said Emily Finch, one of the researchers.

"However, the law is based upon an assumption that the majority of people in society hold the same views."

Fifteen-thousand participants watched short clips, and were asked to judge whether what they saw was honest or dishonest behaviour and whether they would convict someone for their actions in a court of law.

Finch explained: "It seems to be based upon whether or not the person speaking is likeable."

Age differences

Your age seems to be just as important when it comes to how you assess honesty.

Older people in the study were more likely to judge actions as dishonest, although they were more accepting than younger people when it came to persuading someone to change their will.

Another of the researchers, Stefan Fafinski, said: "We've speculated whether society is either getting less honest or we're more protective of our possessions when we get older."

The authors say the findings challenge the assumptions behind the legal tests used in the UK.

The Ghosh test is a two-stage legal test that has been employed since 1982.

It asks whether an action is dishonest according to the "ordinary standards of reasonable and honest people". It then asks whether the defendant realised this was the case.

Fabianski said: "The current law is based on an unattainable common standard."

They also asked other criminal lawyers about the results.

Finch told BBC News: "Their views are very mixed. Quite a lot assume that juries just make an instinctive decision."

The researchers now plan to use mock juries to find out more about how people make their decisions as a group.

They will also try out new legal tests to see if there is a better alternative to the current system.

The results of the Honesty Lab study were discussed here at the British Science Festival.

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