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So I've figured out how to read a case citation and find the text of the judgement - maybe using some of the online resources.

As a novice, I'm trying to decide when the judgement actually applies. Does it support my argument?

  • 2
    Everyone should up vote this – Viktor Oct 1 '15 at 13:13
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Congratulations, intrepid legal enthusiast or learner!

What you'll need

  • A legal dictionary, especially if you're just getting started.
    If you don't own one, you can try Black's Law Dictionary

  • A little bit of patience and time.
    Or maybe a lot, depending on the particular case and the particular question you're trying to answer.

  • Maybe a normal dictionary, too.
    Again, if you don't own one, there's plenty online. Onelook is a dictionary search engine, so it'll search a lot of dictionaries at the same time.

Okay, I've got those things, now what?

Alright, there's a few things you should know.

Firstly, decisions of superior courts are binding only on those inferior courts within the same hierarchy. This means that you can appeal to a higher court so long as it has appellate jurisdiction. Generally, a state (meaning a country) will have a supreme or highest court, with appellate jurisdiction over all other courts - in Australia, this is the High Court of Australia, in the United States, this is the Supreme Court of the United States, and in the United Kingdom, this is the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom.

Secondly, decisions of a court are generally binding only on the matter in dispute. For example, if in a case, the matter of whether the police owe a duty of care to citizens in detecting crime, a comment on whether the police had correctly parked their vehicle is not binding - it is called obiter dictum (plural obiter dicta).

What we're looking for in a judgement is the ratio decidendi (plural rationes decidendi), which is the reason for the decision. This is what is binding, and would be considered in future decisions. The problem? It's not always easy to tell the ratio from the obiter.

Finally, often, the only way to know whether our interpretation of a case is right is to see whether it is applied in a future case, or overruled.

Examples, examples!

Sure. Let's try something easy to start with.

Do product manufacturers owe a duty of care to their customers?

Yes. The decision in Donoghue v Stevenson [1932] UKHL 100 found that product manufacturers - in this case, a ginger beer manufacturer - have a duty of care to ensure their products are safe for use or consumption. Lord Atkin said:

The answer seems to be – persons who are so closely and directly affected by my act that I ought reasonably to have them in contemplation as being so affected when I am directing my mind to the acts or omissions which are called in question.

Okay, so the answer to this question is yes. How do I verify it?

  1. Get the source of the judgement.
    Without this, you're going to be relying on hearsay. The next best thing is a subsequent judgement that applies the one you're looking for, because if the judgement says what it's supposed to, it'll be mentioned in the subsequent judgement. I've found this one.

  2. Decide whether the matter in dispute is actually being decided.
    In our case, it is. But if I was quoting this from a judgement on whether product manufacturers have an obligation to transfer title for goods supplied on a credit agreement, it wouldn't be binding.

  3. Find the quote.
    If you've been given a quote. Otherwise, grab a cup of tea or coffee and get ready to read. A lot. If you can't find something that says, or means, what it's supposed to, it's probably not accurate.

  4. Make sure the judgement hasn't been overruled
    This is tricky, unless the judgement database you're using has a way of searching it. Most do. In any case, it's much like trying to prove a negative. In fact, it's exactly that. But always check whether the judgement has been overturned on appeal.

  5. Make sure the judgement hasn't been obsoleted by statute
    Again, this is tricky. It's proving a negative, again. And trying to find statute might be an answer for another time.


Is that it?

Pretty much, I think. These are at least the main points. There's a whole laundry list of things you shouldn't do with judgements, but they're more about reasoning than legal principles. It's a skill you can really only develop by using, and I'm constantly practising myself.

Many discussions about cases are precisely about what their effect is. Yes, the decisions and orders are usually pretty clear-cut - for example, the decision is that the manufacturer has a duty of care, and the orders are for damages and costs to be paid.

But what it means beyond that can be murky. Luckily for us, judges have become better at writing their judgements so that others can understand.

Also, for more important cases, where the entire country, or world, is watching, others will interpret it for you - consider Obergefell v Hodges, for example. Not everyone can be trusted, but everyone, taken together, is a much more trustworthy source than just one person.

In the end, there's not a mathematical formula for determining what judgements mean. There's some interpretation involved, some judgement. There's not always going to be one judgement that's enough to prove your matter. I'm struggling to end this post neatly so I'll just finish it with a cliff-

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Let's roll back a couple of conceptual steps: before deciding how to interpret a judgement you should know what a judgement is.

What is law?

I quote from Australian Business Law 2002:

The law is a body of generally accepted principles, established by Parliament (i.e. by our representatives) and by the courts. Law is therefore made by us (the men and women who are parliamentarians and judges) for us, is legally enforceable and has developed to set standards of conduct between people, businesses and government. If these standards of conduct are not adhered to, the law provides for resolving the conflicts that arise, and punishing those who breech those standards of conduct.

Resolving Conflicts

A judicial or quasi-judicial decisions (i.e. made by non-judicial tribunals, adjudicators etc.) are about the resolution of a specific conflict between 2 or more people, businesses or governments. This is obviously true for civil cases but it is also true for criminal cases; in criminal cases the conflict is that the state claims the defendant committed a crime and the defendant says they didn't.

By and large, if everyone agrees there will be no need for a judgement. Exceptions are judgements to give effect to what the parties agreed (e.g. many family law matters) and judgements that hand out penalties (e.g. criminal matters).

What a judge decides

A judge decides:

  1. The facts
  2. The law
  3. How the law applies to the facts.

The facts

There are 3 sets of facts: a) what the plaintiff says happened, b) what the defendant says happened and c) what really happened.

The judgement has to show the process of reasoning used to get from a) and b) to c). The judge is obliged to engage with the evidence presented and reason from that to their findings of fact.

A good judgement will set out what the parties agree are the facts, where they agree there is disagreement over the facts and where they disagree that they disagree. Where there is agreement then the judgement should say so; where there is disagreement the judgement needs to resolve the disagreement (if relevant; facts that don't change the outcome don't need to be determined) and explain the reasoning that led from the evidence to the conclusion. This includes such things as why a judge prefers the evidence of one witness over another, or how they determined the date or time of an event from the often conflicting evidence presented.

This is an area where a lot of disputes lie. It is also generally the easiest part of the judgement.

The law

The judgement needs to set out what the relevant law is.

The judge needs to know the statutes and the case law that is applicable; a lot of this will be raised by the parties. However, a good judge is mindful that the parties only draw attention to the law that favours their position, so they need to be across the law independently. Furthermore, the principles of natural justice require a judge to draw the parties attention to a law they have overlooked: a judge is not permitted to make a decision on a point that the parties have not contended; appeals lie in that direction.

The law consists of what is written in the statute books and legal precedent; precedent may be binding (based on the decision of a superior court in the jurisdiction) or persuasive (based on the decision of the same or lesser court in the jurisdiction or a common law court in a completely different jurisdiction). Decisions in the US can influence decisions in the UK, Australia, Canada etc. and vice-versa, however, the "distance" between the laws limits the extent to which this occurs.

This is also an area where a lot of disputes lie.

How the law applies to the facts

Having decided what the facts are and what the law is the judgement needs to set out the reasoning of how applying this law to these facts leads to the decision the judge made.

This too is an area where a lot of disputes lie. An enormous amount of argument in courts revolves about why or why not this law applies to these facts and consequently why the judge should or should not be bound by precedent. A good judgement should take the arguments presented and reason from them to the decision about the interaction of the law and the facts.

It's all mixed together

In order to decide the law you have to know what the facts are but in order to decide if the facts are relevant you have to decide what the law is. You also have to determine what the parties agree and disagree about when they might not be sure about it themselves. This is why justice is expensive.

The Judgement

The judgement is primarily about explaining the reasoning that led to the decision to the party that lost. The party that won doesn't really care; they're off banking their cheque or celebrating their freedom or whatever.

The reason this is done is called "justice"; the losing party needs to understand why the law was not on their side and that the decision the judge made was not arbitrary or capricious. The judgement is the only mechanism the judge has to communicate to the parties.

It also allows the losing party to consider if the judge $%&*ed up and they have grounds for an appeal. It also allows the appeal court to decide if the judge $%&*ed up.

Common law

The reason anyone outside the parties concerned cares about a judgement is that every judgement becomes part of the common law.

In common law countries (i.e. most former British territories) the law on the statute books is only half the law. The other half comes from the law as interpreted by the courts.

Every judgement by every judge is part of that canon, however, not all judgements are created equal. The overwhelming majority of decisions add next to nothing to the law; they follow well understood precedent and the variance lies in the particular facts. One of the truisms of common law legal systems is that similar facts should give similar outcomes.

Every so often a case comes along which substantially (or more rarely completely) changes the way the law is understood. Some examples include Roe v. Wade in the US which limited state regulation of abortion to the third trimester, Mabo v Queensland (No 2) in Australia which overturned the doctrine of Terra nullius and Donoghue v Stevenson in the UK which established many of the principles of negligence that are applied in most common law jurisdictions.

It is worth noting that all of these were decisions of the highest court in each jurisdiction and therefore bind all other courts in the same jurisdiction. Landmark cases are often decided at that level; it is there that they have the most wide-ranging effect and influence but it is not necessarily so. Sometimes a decision of a lower court is not appealed, perhaps because it is obviously correct or the stakes are not high enough to justify the cost of an appeal. If it is good law, courts at the same level, higher courts and even courts in parallel jurisdictions may adopt it and it is only with the benefit of hindsight that it is recognised as a landmark decision.

Reading the #$%* things

Unless you are a legal masochist you don't read these things for fun.

Start with law that you have an interest in and know the general principles of. Have a set of facts in mind that the law would apply to. Look for cases about that. Read the judgements. Try to determine if and how the facts match the facts you are thinking about. See how the judge has applied the law to the facts they had before them. Try to reason out how the case would be decided on your facts.

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