• India
  • Aug 25

SC issues guidelines on writing court judgments

A Supreme Court bench, headed by Justice D.Y. Chandrachud, emphasised that each judgment is a brick in the consolidation of the fundamental precepts on which a legal order is based. A judgment must not confuse the reader using the veneer of complex language because it “speaks to the present and to the future” in settling crucial issues of law, representing another incremental step in societal dialogue, it said. 

The bench was hearing an appeal on a judgment by a division bench of the High Court of Himachal Pradesh. The Supreme Court said that the judgment is incomprehensible and found it difficult to navigate through the maze of incomprehensible language in the decision of the High Court.

The SC bench took the opportunity to lay out the discussion on judgment writing. Laying emphasis on the purpose of a judgment, the apex court elaborated on what should be the content of a judgment.

Purpose of judicial writing is not to confuse reader

A litigant for whom the judgment is primarily meant would be placed in an even more difficult position. Untrained in the law, the litigant is confronted with language which is not heard, written or spoken in contemporary expression. Language of the kind in a judgment defeats the purpose of judicial writing. Incoherent judgments have a serious impact upon the dignity of our institutions. 

Judgment writing of the genre before us in appeal detracts from the efficacy of the judicial process. The purpose of judicial writing is not to confuse or confound the reader behind the veneer of complex language. The judge must write to provide an easy-to-understand analysis of the issues of law and fact which arise for decision. 

Judgments are primarily meant for those whose cases are decided by judges. Judgments of the High Courts and the Supreme Court also serve as precedents to guide future benches. A judgment must make sense to those whose lives and affairs are affected by the outcome of the case. 

While a judgment is read by those as well who have training in the law, they do not represent the entire universe of discourse. Confidence in the judicial process is predicated on the trust which its written word generates. If the meaning of the written word is lost in language, the ability of the adjudicator to retain the trust of the reader is severely eroded.

Every judgment is an incremental step towards consolidation and change. In adhering to precedent, the judgment reflects a commitment to protecting legal principle. This imparts certainty to the law. Each judgment is hence a brick in the consolidation of the fundamental precepts on which a legal order is based. 

Lord Burrows of the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom, in his speech at the Annual Conference of Judges of the Superior Courts in Ireland in May 2021 stressed upon the importance of clarity, coherence and conciseness in judgment writing. Lord Burrows also noted the importance of the judgment being written in a manner that it is accessible to all considering its wide and varied potential audience.

Judgment writing is a layered exercise

A judgment culminates in a conclusion. But its content represents the basis for the conclusion. A judgment is hence a manifestation of reason. The reasons provide the basis of the view which the decision maker has espoused, of the balances which have been drawn. That is why reasons are crucial to the legitimacy of a judge’s work. They provide an insight into judicial analysis, explaining to the reader why what is written has been written. The reasons, as much as the final conclusion, are open to scrutiny. 

A judgment is written primarily for the parties in a forensic contest. The scrutiny is first and foremost by the person for whom the decision is meant — the conflicting parties before the court.

At a secondary level, reasons furnish the basis for challenging a judicial outcome in a higher forum. The validity of the decision is tested by the underlying content and reasons. 

But there is more. Equally significant is the fact that a judgment speaks to the present and to the future. Judicial outcomes taken singularly or in combination have an impact upon human lives. Hence, a judgment is amenable to wider critique and scrutiny, going beyond the immediate contest in a courtroom. 

Citizens, researchers and journalists continuously evaluate the work of courts as public institutions committed to governance under law. Judgment writing is hence a critical instrument in fostering the rule of law and in curbing rule by the law. 

Judgment writing is a layered exercise. In one layer, a judgment addresses the concerns and arguments of parties to a forensic contest. In another layer, a judgment addresses stake-holders beyond the conflict. It speaks to those in society who are impacted by the discourse. 

In the layered formulation of analysis, a judgment speaks to the present and to the future. Whether or not the writer of a judgment envisions it, the written product remains for the future, representing another incremental step in societal dialogue. If a judgment does not measure up, it can be critiqued and criticised. Behind the layers of reason is the vision of the adjudicator over the values which a just society must embody and defend. In a constitutional framework, these values have to be grounded in the Constitution. 

The reasons which a judge furnishes provide a window, an insight, into the work of the court in espousing these values as an integral element of the judicial function.

Important elements of a judgment

“Judgment” means a judicial opinion which tells the story of the case; what the case is about; how the court is resolving  the case and why. 

“Judgment” is defined as any decision given by a court on a question or questions or issue between the parties to a proceeding properly before court. It is also defined as the decision or the sentence of a court in a legal proceeding along with the reasoning of a judge which leads him to his decision. The term “judgment” is loosely used as judicial opinion or decision.

It is not adequate that a decision is accurate, it must also be reasonable, logical and easily comprehensible. What the court says, and how it says it, is equally important as what the court decides.

Every judgment contains four basic elements:

i) Statement of material (relevant) facts

ii) Legal issues or questions

iii) Deliberation to reach at decision

iv) The ratio or conclusive decision. 

A judgment should be coherent, systematic and logically organised. It should enable the reader to trace the fact to a logical conclusion on the basis of legal principles.

The important elements of a written judgment are:

i) Caption

ii) Case number and citation

iii) Facts

iv) Issues

v) Summary of arguments by both the parties

vi) Application of law

vii) Final conclusive verdict.

It is also useful for all judgments to carry paragraph numbers as it allows for ease of reference and enhances the structure, improving the readability and accessibility of the judgments. A ‘Table of Contents’ in a longer version assists access to the reader.

The IRAC method

In terms of structuring judgments, it would be beneficial for courts to structure them in a manner such that the ‘Issue, Rule, Application and Conclusion’ (IRAC) are easily identifiable. 

The well-renowned IRAC method generally followed for analysing cases and structuring submissions can also benefit judgments when it is complemented by recording the facts and submissions.

The ‘Issue’ refers to the question of law that the court is deciding. A court may be dealing with multiple issues in the same judgment. Identifying these issues clearly helps structure the judgment and provides clarity for the reader on the specific issue of law being decided in a particular segment of a judgment.

The ‘Rule’ refers to the portion of the judgment which distils the submissions of counsel on the applicable law and doctrine for the issue identified. This rule is applied to the facts of the case in which the issue has arisen. 

The analysis recording the reasoning of a court forms the ‘Application’ section.

Finally, it is always useful for a court to summarise and lay out the ‘Conclusion’ on the basis of its determination of the application of the rule to the issue along with the decision vis-à-vis the specific facts. This allows stakeholders, especially members of the bar as well as judges relying upon the case in the future, to concisely understand the holding of the case.

Clarity and precision should be the goal

The expression of a judge is an unfolding of the recesses of the mind. However, while recesses of the mind may be inscrutable, the reasoning in judgment cannot be. While judges may have their own style of judgment writing, they must ensure lucidity in writing across these styles. 

Justice Michael Kirby, a former judge of the High Court of Australia, has noted that brevity, simplicity and clarity are the hallmarks of good judgment writing. But the greatest of these is clarity.

The judgment replicates the individuality of the judge and therefore it is indispensable that it should be written with care and caution. The reasoning in the judgment should be intelligible and logical. Clarity and precision should be the goal. All conclusions should be supported by reasons duly recorded. The findings and directions should be precise and specific. Writing judgments is an art, though it involves skillful application of law and logic. 

The judges may be overburdened with the pending cases and the arrears, but at the same time, quality can never be sacrificed for quantity. Unless judgment is not in a precise manner, it would not have a sweeping impact. There are some judgments that eventually get overruled because of lack of clarity. 

Therefore, whenever a judgment is written, it should have clarity on facts; on submissions made on behalf of the rival parties; discussion on law points and thereafter reasoning and thereafter the ultimate conclusion and the findings and thereafter the operative portion of the order.

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