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What Is a Retraction?

Witnesses may re-testify in court with contradictory information if they change their minds about the evidence or their testimony.
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  • Written By: Tricia Ellis-Christensen
  • Edited By: Jessica Seminara
  • Last Modified Date: 31 August 2014
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In the legal sense, retraction is the act of taking something back that has previously been stated, written, or submitted. The precise laws on how this is accomplished vary by region, but there are, generally, three types of things that can be retracted. Defamatory spoken or printed statements can be officially withdrawn to avoid lawsuits. Alternately, some motions, papers filed, or witness statements are subject to retraction. Additionally, people or entities may withdraw certain promises or contracts.

Almost every day, different types of media publish untrue material about celebrities that can damage these people’s reputations. Many stars respond by filing lawsuits, which they will often cancel if the media source prints an appropriate retraction. Any time someone is libeled, by having false things written about him, or slandered, by having false things spoken about him, there may be cause to demand a retraction. Even an accidentally wrong statement could create legal nightmares, which most publications are anxious to avoid. Publishers with strong journalistic ethics tend to retract automatically at the justified request of others.

Many people have seen more than one legal drama where a witness wants to recant previous testimony. Those testifying may retract a confession or accusation that has not yet been heard in court. Alternately, during the course of a trial, witnesses or the accused can decide to change their minds about their testimony and re-testify with contradictory information.

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This is not the only use for retraction in a court. Motions can be retracted and documents submitted to a court may be taken back, too, if they’re not legal or inaccurate. In some states, a financial settlement, such as in a divorce, can occasionally be retracted in light of new information.

There are various laws that describe the legal rights of individuals who form contracts with others. In some instances, it is possible to take back an issued contract, particularly if something occurred after the time of its issuance to render it null or void. Still, there can be strong disagreements about whether the retraction of a contract is legal. A court might be asked to determine whether taking it back was fair, if the contract needs to be honored, and what, if any, damages might be owed.

While taking back statements, documents, or contracts can sometimes be a virtue, there are horror stories regarding its implementation. Rape victims have been sued for defamation if their cases were unsuccessful in court. They may be forced to retract an accusation of rape, which arguably re-traumatizes the victim.

In some odd instances, people have been held criminally liable for false retractions of testimony, and they have been convicted of perjury. For example, one woman in the United Kingdom was jailed for retracting an accusation of rape against her husband, not because the accusation was false, but because the retraction was. Though she was ultimately freed, her example suggests that any testimony in court, including a retraction, is weighed with due gravity.

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