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Six tips for reading a judgment most effectively

Posted by Melanie Davidson on 24 February 2015

JudgmentFor law students and practitioners, reading a judgment is nothing new. It is something ingrained in you from the moment you immerse yourself in the world of law. 

The problem is that as a law student, you are not alwways taught how to read the judgment in the most effective way. I remember on one too many occasions slaving over a judgment, including the notorious Factortame, only to realise afterwards that in fact the approach I took of reading every line with a fine-tooth comb was rather unnecessary. 

Through trial and error, of which there has been much, I have devised a set of tips that I now follow when facing this task. This guidance has proven effective at streamlining the time spent on legal research, focussing my mind on the bits I really need to know rather than the "fluff". They are suitable for anyone who comes into contact with, or has an interest in, case law and is looking for a way to expedite the process of reading it.

The Tips

Below you will find my six tips for reading a judgment effectively. If you have any suggestions of your own, we'd love to hear them. You can submit them in the comments section below.

Tip One: Avoid discussion of the facts

This is something I was taught while studying; perhaps because of the tendency of students to spend too long on the facts and not enough time reading and digesting the law. Without sidelining the facts to the point of redundancy, I find their use lies in their ability to contextualise the case. They are there to provide a background to the issues before the court.  For anyone nervous about not understanding a case by not reading the facts, it is often the case that the most important facts are repeated throughout the judgment.

Tip Two: Skirt around counsels' arguments

For me I think of counsels' arguments as existing simply to provide a bit of insight in to the arguments advanced before the court. While they might provide an interesting read, it is not necessarily a useful one if you have time constraints. When you want to know the decision of the judges, they do not really add anything; that is unless you're a practitioner looking to structure an argument similar to counsel's from a particular case. As with the reading of the facts, any particularly persuasive arguments may be referred to in the opinions of judges. Otherwise I prefer to avoid them. Their unessential nature is apparent by their absence from the Official Judgment collection and other data sources.

Tip Three: Look out for an overview of the decision at the beginning of the judgment

Now this is something that won't be present in all transcripts of judgments available, but can be found in our Justis Irish Cases package. When reading a judgment it is worthwhile keeping an eye out for the decision from the very beginning. Often you will find a line before the decision(s), which tells you whether an appeal was allowed or dismissed and how the judges decided. Knowing the decision before you begin reading the judgment in any amount of substance can help you simplify your reading, as you can skim the judgment to find those parts of the decisions directly relevant to the final decision that was held. 

Tip Four: Be eagle-eyed for evidence of the decision from the judges' tone and use of language

For some judges, such as Lord Denning, their way with words can reveal their feelings on the case and the decision they are likely to make. For example, Lord Denning began his decision in Eves v Eves [1975] EWCA Civ 3 with the following: "I will call her Janet because she has had surnames already. She was married for the first time at the age of 18; but that marriage only lasted about a year. Next at the age of 19 she met a man, Stuart Eves. He was a married man. They could not marry, so they started living together. She took his name and had two children by him." The sympathy Lord Denning showed toward Janet made it clear that she would receive a financial stake in the family home, which she did in the form of 1/4. It provided a strong indication of what was to come.

Tip Five: If time is of the essence, ensure you read the conclusions of the judges at the end of their decision

When tasked with reading longer judgments, it can be worthwhile to focus on the conclusions made by the judges at the end of their opinions more than the reasoning. This is not the case across the board, but with some that restate principles of law that are already well-founded and therefore add nothing new to the discussion, it is a time-saving exercise worth undertaking.

Tip Six: Read the dissenting opinions as these often provide another insight into the legal issue in dispute

While we may be hardwired to believe that dissenting opinions are obsolete because they do not constitute the ratio of the case, they can prove to be incredibly influential in the development of the law in subsequent cases. This was exemplified with Lord Atkin's dissent in Liversidge v Anderson [1941] UKHL 1 when he departed from the decision of the majority on the issue of government power. While the majority interpreted the Defence (General) Regulations 1939 so as to effect what Parliament intended, Lord Atkin declared that the strained construction of words used when interpreting the Regulations gave the Minister uncontrolled power of imprisonment. 

So, what does this all mean?

Ultimately what the judge says in their opinion is what is important, whatever type of opinion they give. the importance is found in understanding the decision and its importance in the corpus of law. Dissenting opinions, sometimes maligned at the date of release, can prove to be influential in the law after the case has been decided. Equally the majority decision may be found to be wrong in law by a subsequent case that treats it negatively. 

In their decisions judges will assign, implicitly (more often than explicitly), a case with a treatment type such as applied, referred to or overrruled. In doing so they provide us with an insight into their interpretation of the value of the case, to the case in question. If you would like to learn more about what treatment types are and why they are of such vital importance to anyone interested in or practising the law, please click on the link below to download our "Guide to Treatment Types" eBook. 

Guide to case law treatment types

Melanie Davidson

Written by Melanie Davidson

Mel works as the Marketing Executive for Justis, writing legal content for our blog as well as organising our advertising and other marketing activities. She completed her Masters degree in Public International Law, writing her dissertation on the persecution of minorities. Her predominant legal interest lies in the areas of state crime and international human rights.

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