Judgments make the law.
There is perhaps nothing more important for a lawyer than to have the ability to closely and critically read judgments – often, many of them in a very short time. And ironically, this is not something that is prioritised in law schools: case notes and case summaries are often used as substitutes for reading judgments. This is perhaps because it is quite natural to think that, as long as one knows the holding of a case, one knows the law.
This, however, is a mistake.
You will see it for yourself if you first read the SCC headnotes of a case, then read the judgment itself, and note the difference in your understanding. Reading judgments in full allows you to develop your own unique perspective on the development of the law, as well as giving you a much deeper and clearer analytical grasp of the law as a whole.[Watch a video on understanding and using judgments as legal authorities. This video is a part of our course on Legal Research.]
Reading judgments is often a thankless task, especially if it involves reading recent judgments of the Supreme Court, which are often very long. There are a few techniques that can make your task easier.
- Understand how the case reached the court
The first is to have a clear map in your mind about how the case got to the Supreme Court. Did it begin life as an Article 226 petition before the High Court, and is there a reasoned judgment of the High Court that is being appealed? You may not have time to go back and read the High Court’s judgment itself, but it is important to pay close attention to the Supreme Court’s summary of what the High Court held. Sometimes, the chain will go back even further, beginning in the trial court or a tribunal. In each of these situations, understanding the history of the case will make it far easier for you to grasp what the Supreme Court is doing, and why it’s doing it.
- Separate the submissions for the parties (with colours!)
The second thing is something rather more practical: colour-code the document you’re reading, in order to differentiate the submissions of the two sides, and the judicial analysis itself. For example, I highlight the petitioner’s submissions in red, the respondent’s submissions in blue, and the judicial analysis in green. This ensures that you have a clear sense of the structure of the judgment, and its logical flow, especially in cases where the court doesn’t structure its judgments in sequence, but repeatedly moves back and forth between the parties’ submissions, and its own analysis.
- Keep statutory provisions handy
Thirdly, keep copies of the laws and statutes that the judgment is referring to with you, either in hard copy, or open in a separate window on your laptop. Normally, judgments will cite the legal provision in full the first time they refer to it, and not after that. Often, however, statutory provisions will be long and complicated, full of “notwithstandings” and “provided that”, and you will not be able to remember them as you go through the judgment. Moreover, many statutes are too complicated to even fully grasp on a first read. So, having them with you, and re-reading them every time the judgment refers back to the statutes, is an excellent way of both following the train of thought in the judgment, as well as allowing yourself to completely grasp – through repeated readings – the nuances and complexities of the laws that the court is dealing with.[Watch a video on the importance of case law in legal research. This video is a part of our course on A Lawyer’s Role in Chambers.]
- Know whether the ruling remains law
Fourthly, when you’re reading a case, it is good to be generally aware of whether the legal position continues to hold. Often, judgments are overruled or reversed by later cases, or overtaken by lawmaking. Case databases often give you tools to help you in this task. For example, SCCOnline will let you know if a judgment has been overruled or reversed. Both Manupatra and IndianKanoon have a particularly useful tool: Manupatra has an icon above the judgment called “Mentioned in”, which gives you a list of all the subsequent cases that have cited the judgment you’re reading. IndianKanoon has a link titled “Cited by”, which does the same. After you finish reading your judgment, it’s a good policy to quickly skim through the list of cases that appears in the “Mentioned in” or “Cited by” column, just to ensure that there has been no fundamental change in the law.
- Remember that the court’s analysis is still the most important part of the judgment
And lastly – if your research involves reading recent judgments, you will find them to be of inordinate length, often running into hundreds of pages. This is because the Supreme Court has taken to reproducing the parties’ submissions at length before moving on to its own analysis. In such a situation, the best way out might be to read as much of the submissions as is necessary for you to attain a grasp of the key arguments (on both sides), skim the rest, and then move straight on to the Court’s analysis. It is not ideal, but there is perhaps no other way to do it.
The image above is from James McNeill Whistler’s Reading by Lamplight.
Gautam Bhatia is a Delhi-based advocate and the author of Offend, Shock or Disturb – Free Speech Under the Indian Constitution.