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Thursday, 16 December 2010

Judgment Matters

This article, jointly written with Alexander Horne, has been published in the New Law Journal, (16 December 2010, Vol 160, Issue 7446, p 1735) 

An issue that has been debated since before the inception of the UK Supreme Court is the form in which judgments are delivered. Any such debate needs to consider two fundamental questions: first, the purpose of the judgment, and secondly, the intended audience. This article is mainly concerned with the former.

Appellate judgments serve two primary purposes:

(i) to tell the parties who has won and why; and

(ii) to clarify the law.

It is our contention that both objectives may be adversely affected in part by longer judgments, but more often—and more severely—by multiple judgments being issued with no clear ratio.

Individual judgments have lengthened at all levels in the past few decades, at least in courts of record, as the volumes of the law reports confirm. We suspect several factors are responsible.

First, the statute book has grown substantially in size and complexity in the past decade and a half, and one would expect the length of judgments dealing with statutes to correspond.

Second, from about the 1980s what judges occasionally refer to as the (self explanatory) “photocopying disease” took hold amongst counsel, later supplemented by its variant strain of the “cut-and-paste disease”.

Third, the growth of specialist report series made many more authorities available.

Fourth, and perhaps most significantly, from about the mid-1990s judgments started to become available on the internet. Previously, most unreported judgments effectively vanished. With the internet—coupled with the growing number of specialist series—almost every judgment is now freely available to counsel.

Citation matters

As a result counsel feel able, and often obliged, to cite multiple authorities and judges, in turn, feel compelled to deal with all of them. This is perhaps more acute in the lower courts where a judge might wish, out of caution, to deal with every authority lest failure to do so results in an appeal. In a Guardian Law Blog of 2 September, Adam Wagner lent towards blaming judges for too many authorities being cited and discussed, on the ground that they have the final say as to what appears in a judgment. In our view the blame ought to be shared more equally as between Bench and Bar, at least with regard to courts other than the Supreme Court. If a judgment may be appealed then a judge may feel compelled to deal with each and every argument and authority offered by counsel, although to an extent it may vary according to the degree of familiarity of the judge with the subject matter.

Plurality judgments

A view of significant authority has recently been presented by Baroness Hale, in an interview for the United Kingdom Supreme Court blog. She commented on “plurality judgments”, by which she was referring to single judgments with multiple authors, noting that “the idea of plurality judgments as the norm is very radical” and that while “some of us are sympathetic to it” others in the Supreme Court were not.

Many of the objections to the introduction of plurality judgments can appear self indulgent and miss the point that multiple concurring judgments can run counter to the two primary purposes of judgments identified above. Far from clarifying the law, multiple judgments can result in further confusion if they do not contain a clear and agreed ratio.

As Baroness Hale went on to suggest, on an appellate tribunal some judges will usually have greater experience in some areas than others. It is indeed important that each judge makes an effort to understand the issues rather than automatically deferring to the one with the most experience in the area under consideration, but it does not follow that each is therefore required to give a reasoned opinion. This was never the practice of the House of Lords and has not been the practice of the Supreme Court to date.

Baroness Hale gave as an example R (on the application of E) v Office of the Schools Adjudicator (Governing Body of JFS and others, interested parties) (British Humanist Association and another intervening) [2010] 1 All ER 319, [2009] UKSC 15, a public law case, concerning the lawfulness of a school’s admissions policy. The legal question was a short one: whether the particular grounds for admission were racially or religiously defined (or as Baroness Hale put it, whether one can discriminate without meaning to). Despite the five different majority judgments the question was answered clearly enough.

This will not always be the case, however, particularly not in sophisticated commercial appeals, which might involve a multitude of issues on which judges might differ while agreeing on the result.

Generally, in the common law world, final courts of appeal have not as a uniform practice handed down a single judgment, one notable exception being the Privy Council. The approach adopted by the European Court of Justice and the European Court of Human Rights (delivering a single, composite, judgment reflecting an agreed position) may be one which the Supreme Court could follow. However, we would stress that the issue is not multiple judgments per se, but the lack of a single identifiable ratio.

One advantage of introducing plurality judgments is that it would ensure private debate between the judges hearing the case. The benefits of a round table discussion seem obvious, since, among other things, it would ensure that the judges had considered one another’s views on the case.


Baroness Hale has frequently been a champion of a more diverse judiciary, partly on the grounds that this might allow for different perspectives on cases and avoid the problem of “groupthink”. To achieve such a benefit, it is essential for the judges concerned to deliberate and discuss the case together; otherwise the conclusions reached by these new, diverse, appointees could easily be relegated to a lone dissent or ignored by the other members of the panel.

Baroness Hale went on to say that she hoped it would never become the case that dissents were not permitted, or that a judge would be prevented from describing the facts in a different way or otherwise expressing his own viewpoint. In this respect, dissenting judgments are a red herring. By definition they do not affect the majority decision and therefore have little adverse effect on certainty in the law.

It may be that judges are simply not able to agree (or not within a reasonable time) on all points of the case. In those circumstances, rather than issue multiple judgments which concur in the result but not all of the reasoning, and thus leave the law in a state of flux, it is incumbent on the presiding judge to insist upon a majority decision. This could be done by each judge stating that he agrees with the majority and then going on to give separate reasons in the form of obiter dicta indications as to what they would have preferred to have formed the reasoning for the decision. Of course, that would be an imperfect form of compromise but it would also indicate strongly to the legislature that the law under consideration requires review.

Baroness Hale’s final remark concerned the fact that different readers such as academics and leading practitioners might prefer diverse opinions. This is true, but the advantages of multiple judgments in the form of alternative viewpoints on the law could still be retained even when insisting on a majority ratio for the decision. Academics would then be able to assess what the law presently is against what the other judges would have preferred it to be. Practitioners would be able to extract arguments for subsequent cases, but would not have to charge clients fees for sifting through multiple judgments to determine what they think the law is while adding caveats that it might not be.

Our proposal would not require any radical step or reform, only an insistence that what is already a common practice for the form of judgments becomes a mandatory one.

A model example

The recent case of Radmacher v Granatino [2010] All ER (D) 186 (Oct) provides a model example. Seven judges endorse the leading judgment, Lord Mance adds a separate concurrence while Baroness Hale herself dissents. Practitioners therefore have an indisputable majority ratio, while academics and law reformers have the benefit of the differing views of Lord Mance and Baroness Hale.

Baroness Hale was undoubtedly correct that “the law can never be as clear as people think it is”, but it should aim to be as clear as is practicable to achieve.


Since the above was first drafted, Baroness Hale has returned to the subject in a speech for the First Anniversary Seminar of the Supreme Court. She argues

we should have a flexible approach in which each Justice is free to write but a climate of collegiality and co-operation in plurality judgments is encouraged. At the very least, however many judgments [there] are, there should never be any doubt about what has been decided and why”.

This accords precisely with what we have contended in this article.

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