As law schools across the country plan to open their gates to new law students, we thought it wise to offer tips to the students on how to go about one of the most integral skills required of a law student, let alone a good lawyer.
These tips can also be used by practicing lawyers, journalists, writers, and the public at large.
Being a legal publication, you can be sure we read vast volumes of court cases and decisions which we then distill into relevant and actionable information that anyone can read and benefit from.
So what makes court decisions important? It is because they form the bedrock on which the law is developed and applied to our everyday lives.
Unlike all the other sources of law taught in law school, court decisions often times referred to as ‘case law’ are vivid representations of the law in motion since court cases are about real-life disputes and how courts solve them.
You will learn and understand the law (and definitely be a good lawyer) if you develop a habit of reading and optimizing court decisions.
In this piece, we will enlighten you on the structure of a Court decision, standard terms used in court decisions, and what to look for from a court decision.
Structure of a Court Decision
Court decisions are organized and designed in a uniform structure that is obvious and predictable and most times a judgment will sound like a copy and paste job from another decision.
The first part of a decision is the “Caption.” This is the section that introduces the Court decision. In this part, you will find the country from which the Court is located, the Court’s name and its location, the case reference number, and sometimes a hint about the case’s procedural history (how the case has worked its way into the Court system. More on this later.)
The Caption will also contain the full names of the people/institutions involved in the case and these are often times referred to as the “parties,” “ the litigants” and “disputants.”
This part of the case, besides introducing you to the decision you want to read, is important in helping you look for the decision in case law books or law reports as sometimes it will bear the citation of the case. This is usually the case with cases from foreign countries.
So you will come across cases that bear names and numbers that look like this; “UK Court of Appeals, 120 UK. 560 (2023)” which simply means a UK Court of Appeals case decided in 2023 that appears in Volume 120 of the UK Reports starting at page 560.
Next to the caption is the name of the Judge issuing the decision if the case is in the High Court. If the Court is the Court of Appeal or Constitutional Court or the Supreme Court, the name (s) of the Judge (s) (or Justices) will be in the Caption and they will be entitled “Coram ” to mean panel since Judges in those courts often sit more than one.
You will notice that the names of the Judges are often accompanied by the initials “J”, “JA,” “JCC”,“JSC”, “DCJ” and “CJ”.
Probably you have even seen them on their cars, these initials signal the Court in which the Judge sits. “J” is simply “Judge” and it is used by Judges of the High Court, “JA” is “Justice of Appeal” and it is used by Judges of the Court of Appeal, “JCC” is “Justice of the Constitutional Court” and it is used by Justices of the Constitutional Court, “JSC” is “Justice of the Supreme Court” and is used by Justices of the Supreme Court.
DCJ stands for Deputy Chief Justice and CJ stands for Chief Justice.
In Uganda, Justices of the Court of Appeal are the same as Justices of the Constitutional Court but the two Courts are different in that they handle different cases. Read about Uganda’s Court system here.
After the citation, a Court decision carries the “background of the case” or the “facts.” In other words, what happened? In this section, the Judge (s) issuing the decision will belabor to explain the factual background leading up to the dispute.
Sometimes, the Judge (s) who usually call themselves “the Court” will delve into the procedural history of the case before them showing the reader how the dispute ended up in their Court. Here they may explain the law under which the case was filed and will indicate other courts or tribunals that have handled the dispute.
In higher courts such as the Constitutional Court, the Court of Appeal, and the Supreme Court, this section will also include an explanation of the role of that Court as provided by the law.
The next part of the Court decision will cater to the legal arguments of the “parties” involved in the dispute. In other words, statements of each party applied to the specific laws governing the dispute.
A Court decision will always first indicate the legal arguments of the “plaintiff,” or the “appellant” or the “petitioner” or the “prosecutor” and then it will indicate the response of the “defendant,” the “respondent” and “the accused” depending on the case.
Law students and lawyers should read the arguments of both sides to the dispute to learn the different perspectives that characterize lawyering.
Confused? Much of the language you will encounter in Court decisions and many legal documents is foreign and peculiar owing to the fact that the legal system in Uganda was picked from Britain which also acquired certain French words after it got conquered by the Normans in 1066.
So words such as plaintiff, defendant, tort, contract, crime, judge, attorney, counsel, court, verdict, party, appeal, and evidence that populate court decisions are actually French words, according to Prof. Orin S. Kerr, a law professor at Berkeley University Law School.
When two people develop a misunderstanding and one sues the other, the person suing is called the “plaintiff” if the case is a civil case. A civil case is one between individuals over civil issues. The person being sued in such a case is called the “defendant.”
The legal system is divided into two broad types of law; Civil law and Criminal law. In criminal law, the case ( a criminal case) is between the government often called “the State” and a person.
When the government arrests you and charges you with a crime, you will be called an “accused” person. And if the Court convicts you in such a case and you appeal the case before the Court of Appeal or the High Court, you will be called an “appellant.”
The government can also be sued in civil cases and when that happens the Attorney General will be its lawyer and a Court decision will refer to him or her as “the respondent.”
In criminal cases, the government is always represented by lawyers known as “prosecutors” or “the State” or “the prosecution” or “State Attorney (s)”.
Sometimes, a case is a “petition” in other words a person has gone to Court to request it to do something such as to interpret the Constitution or overturn an election, etc. In such a case, the person who has gone to Court is called “the petitioner” and the person who has been sued is known as “the respondent.”
After the Judge has laid down the legal arguments of the parties, he or she will delve into the “analysis of the Court” or “Judgment of the Court.” In this part, the Judge will explain the general legal principles that relate to the facts or “circumstances” of the case.
And he or she will proceed to apply them and other laws or rules to the facts. A judge can adopt a unique style of his or her choice in presenting this section but he or she will always endeavor to build up or stack his or her reasoning in a flow aimed to show the reader how the final decision or judgment will be reached at or made.
When a Judge completes the legal analysis then he or she will lay down the court’s decision. For law students and lawyers, this decision is very important because it can be a new legal principle of law. When clients come to you, you need to be able to extract legal principles from your arsenal of cases related to their disputes and then advise them accordingly.
The legal principle a Judge relies on to make his or her final decision in a case is known as a “rationale.” In the course of delivering a Court decision, a Judge will make several legal statements in building up his or her decision but these may not amount to the key legal principle you should be looking out for in the case.
Such statements are sometimes called “obiter dictum” or statements made “by the way.”
Judges do not announce that “this is obiter” or that this is the “rationale” so you have to find out it all by yourself which is why you should read court decisions extensively to understand the facts of the case and how the Judge applies the law to those facts.
When you develop a court decision reading culture, your imagination will expand, and your overall understanding of legal disputes and how Judges solve them.
Court decisions are split between single Judge decisions (usually in the High Court and courts below) and multiple-judge decisions ( in the Court of Appeal, Constitutional Court, and Supreme Court).
It is important to note what source of law exactly the Judge (s) is tasked to apply and the hierarchies of these sources as they vary in degree of influence on the law.
You must have heard that the Constitution is the supreme of the “land” which is really a fancy way of saying the “country.” This means that Constitutional law is most important as it sets the stage on which the other sources play.
In this regard, it is followed by statutory law which is basically the laws passed by Parliament, and then common law which is law inherited from Britain which colonized Uganda. When Judges are handling a Case that directly touches the Constitution, they have a lot of legroom to develop the law by the sheer force of how they interpret the Constitution’s provisions.
But when handling cases that are primarily about laws passed by Parliament then this legroom is limited as most of what they will do is simply follow what those laws say.
So when Judges are more than one, the overall legal thinking of the Court will be voted for and the majority’s decision will be the Court decision often written by one selected Judge with the other members of the panel simply agreeing.
This approach gives rise to two other types of Court decisions that is a “dissenting Judgment” or simply a “dissent” and a “concurrence” or “concurring Judgment.” A dissent is a Judge’s decision that simply does not agree with the majority decision whereas a “concurring ”decision is a Judge’s decision that agrees with the overall decision of the Court but does not agree with the legal approach taken in arriving at it.
For lawyers and law students, it is advised to read both the majority decisions and dissenting judgments and concurrence (if any) for a better appreciation of the Court Judgments.
As already mentioned, court decisions form the bedrock of legal development, and understanding the different approaches and thought patterns Judges may have is a surefire way of understanding the law.
Finally, the tips we have given you in this article are by no means exhaustive but we have tried as much as possible to be comprehensive. There are definitely more tips on how to read and easily understand court decisions but understanding how the decisions are structured and what you are supposed to get out of them depending on the level at which you are in your legal education, career, or even life is a great way to start.