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Friday, 19 March 2010

Press releases accompanying Supreme Court judgments

The following was excised from a longer piece being written for the UKSC blog, it rendered the piece too long and was on a slightly different point to the main issue being considered.

One innovation accompanying the introduction of the Supreme Court was press releases for each judgment. These I am told are authored by the judicial assistants. I am not convinced they are a welcome change.

The press releases read as a sort of hybrid between a headnote and a news summary. They lack the authority of the former or the general observation of the latter. They are expressly stated not to form part of the judgment. Of course they are of some assistance, but they do not seek to summarise the law in the way of a headnote. More importantly, they can do nothing to change any infelicities or inconsistencies between multiple judgments. They can merely draw attention to them. Judicial assistants are of great benefit to the judges (I should here declare that I was briefly in such a capacity in New Zealand, though discount my own contribution for the purposes of this discussion!). It is not thought necessary for the Court of Appeal, for example, to issue press releases.

I suggest that there is no need if one takes into account the primary target audience. Judgments of the Supreme Court will always appear in mainstream law reports (usually as a matter of priority), and it is these upon which lawyers will subsequently rely.

Of course the general public are also interested in the outcome of certain high profile cases, and the press releases may help journalists understand the judgments. They have never been thought necessary before. Admittedly fewer of the mainstream media have legally qualified staff anymore, and the papers are not always as rigorous as they might be in publishing corrections of erroneous reports of important cases. But is it the role of the court to do the hacks’ job for them? It might also be observed that the reasoning in favour of press releases for the Supreme Court applies equally to the lower courts (as I have argued before, most judge made law is made in the High Court and Court of Appeal) and no-one would suggest that there is anything like the resources to provide press releases for all of their judgments.

I would suggest, therefore, that the valuable time of the judicial assistants would be better spent if they were deployed solely to assist the preparation of judgments, including identifying any inconsistencies in draft judgments and drawing them to the judges’ attention.

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