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This article has been written by Tanisha Kohli, pursuing a Diploma in Advanced Contract Drafting, Negotiation, and Dispute Resolution from LawSikho.com

Introduction

Reading judgments is an essential and inescapable aspect of any lawyer’s everyday life. Irrespective of the stage of one’s journey in the legal field, one will always find oneself reading through several pages of judgments to understand the court’s decision and the reasoning that underlies it.

The first exposure to reading judgments is at law school, for the purpose of college lectures, as well as internships, research papers, moot courts, satiating one’s own curiosity about a particular legal proposition, and so on. This article has a focus on judgments delivered by courts in India.

The aim of this article is to serve as an introductory guide to anyone who may feel intimidated by the dense paragraphs of a judgment and find that it is too difficult to navigate. The article will enumerate the various components that often make up a judgment. Identifying the various parts of the judgment is a useful tool to comprehend it, as it can help break the judgment down into smaller and more digestible pieces. 

Title of the judgment

The title of the judgment can reveal many aspects of the case. Firstly, it tells us the names of the parties to the dispute. The parties can be individuals, corporations, governments, and so on. However, there is the limitation that the title only mentions the name of one party on each side of the dispute. Thus, to determine all involved parties one often has to look at the text of the judgment. Secondly, it indicates which party has filed the plaint/suit or which is the party that has appealed from the lower courts. Thirdly, it can also be of assistance in identifying which area of law does the case deals with. For instance, if the Union or State government is a party to the dispute, it is quite likely that case is a criminal or constitutional matter. Example of a judgment title: Som Prakash v. Union of India.

Citation 

The title or name of a judgment is accompanied by the citation of the judgment. In addition to being published on the website of the concerned court, judgments are published by case reporters such as Supreme Court Cases (SCC), Manupatra, All India Reporter (AIR), and many more. The citation indicates to us the location of the judgment in the case reporter i.e. the page number, volume of the publication, and year of the publication. The citation also serves as an indicator of the court which delivered the judgment. 

  • Example 1: In the citation AIR 1955 SC 549, the use of ‘SC’ tells us that it is a judgment by the Supreme Court. 
  • Example 2: In the citation AIR 1955 Cal 319, usage of ‘Cal’ tells us that it is a judgment by the Calcutta High Court.

The year in the citation also points to the year in which the judgment is delivered. However, this may not always be the case. 

The bench

The judgment also tells us the number of judges who heard and decided the matter, as well as their names. The size of the Bench is particularly important in determining which courts are bound by the judgment. For example, a single judge is bound by the judgment of a division bench (two judges). However, the converse is not true. 

The procedural journey of the matter 

This includes a background of how the present matter came to be before that particular court. For example, it could have reached the court by way of an appeal from a lower court decision, or it may be by way of an SLP i.e. leave granted in a Special Leave Petition.  

The decision in the lower courts, by a bench of lower strength

The judgment more often than not states the decision taken by the lower court(s) and the reasoning adopted by the lower court(s). For example, “Both the Division Benches held that ICRISAT was an international organisation and was immune from being sued because of a notification issued in 1972 under the United Nations (Privileges and Immunities) Act, 1947 and that a writ under Article 226 could not be issued to ICRISAT.”

Description of the parties

The court may describe the parties involved in the dispute, and which party initiated the legal proceedings. For example, “The appellants were employees of the respondent no. 1 (ICRISAT). Their services were terminated. They filed writ petitions before the High Court of Andhra Pradesh against ICRISAT and the Union of India.” This statement of the court tells us who has filed the appeal, the relation of the appellants to the respondents, and that the petition was originally filed by the appellants. 

Facts of the dispute

This means the material facts which have led to the dispute. It includes the conduct of the parties, the incident(s) which led to a conflict between the parties, and so on. Understanding the facts of the case is extremely important, as the final decision of the court rests upon the application of the law to these specific facts. The same legal principles applied in different facts can have a very different outcome.

Contentions of the parties

This section contains the arguments by the parties, which includes the cases and provisions of the law that they have relied upon. It is evident that the contentions portion of the judgment has arrived when one sees language such as “The learned Senior Counsel, Mr. … Argued on behalf of the … that…”

The court may list all the contentions in the beginning at one go and then deal with them at a subsequent stage. The court may also deal with each contention by referring to them one by one and rendering its views on the said contention. When the contention and the court’s views are provided in the same paragraph, it can become difficult to distinguish between the two. It is useful to look for sentences that begin with “We” or similar words to determine where the court’s view starts. For example, “We find force in this contention”, “In our opinion, there is no force in this argument.”

The issue 

The issue(s) is the question of law or the mixed question of fact and law which the court has to decide upon. Example of an issue: “Whether the Respondent, which is a non-signatory to the arbitration agreement, is bound by the arbitration agreement?” A judgment may also discuss the issues framed by the lower courts. It is possible that at the higher court they are not dealing with all the issues framed by the lower courts but only a few of them. The court may directly state that “The issue in this case is ……..” Another common way to state the issue is “The question, in this case, is whether……” “Now we come to the issue of……..”

Provisions of the statute(s) concerned

The court will also deal with the applicable legislation in the matter and the provisions of the legislation which are applicable to the dispute. It may discuss the scheme of the legislation, its preamble, the verbatim sections, essential ingredients of the sections, the object of the sections, and so on. 

Case law

A judgment discusses other cases within it. The court deals with case law relied upon by the parties on each side. It may also discuss relevant case law on the subject matter, which may not have been brought up by the parties themselves. The case laws could be judgments by foreign courts or by Indian courts. If not already mentioned in the judgment, to determine whether the case law is foreign or domestic, a quick glance at the citation can indicate the same.  

There are several ways in which the court may deal with a particular case. The case may be quoted with approval through language such as “We agree with the observations in X v. Y”, “The matter was squarely decided in…”, “The question of law is no longer res integra and was settled in the case of …” The court may distinguish the case and thus refuse to apply the principles enunciated in that case, even though it is bound by the case. To distinguish, the court may use language such as “This case has no application to the present matter.” The court may also humbly disagree with the observations in a case. A case may also be overruled by the court, which would mean that the principles of law in the overruled case are not correct, and no longer have any binding power. 

Observations and the decision

This includes the court’s considerations of the law involved. The court discusses and lays down the principles of law applicable in that matter. The court may apply the law to the facts of the dispute and decide the matter. The matter may also be remanded to the lower court for the decision on facts in accordance with the law laid down. 

Ratio Decidendi

This is a very important term in legal parlance. The ratio decidendi is the binding portion of the judgment. Statements that are not part of the ratio decidendi do not have the power to bind other courts. Ratio decidendi is understood as having three possible meanings: 

  1. The reason for (or of) deciding. However, in this understanding of the term, even a finding of fact may form the ratio decidendi. For instance, a judge may state a rule and then decide that the facts do not fall within it. 
  2. The rule of law is proffered by the judge as to the basis of his decision.
  3. The rule of law which subsequent courts which deal with the judgment consider being binding. 

To determine the ratio of a case, it can be useful to search for other cases in which that case has been discussed. 

Obiter Dicta 

The Obiter Dictum is the non-binding portion of the judgment. For instance, observations by the court on legal principles which were not necessary for the court to decide upon in the facts of that case, are generally considered obiter dictum. 

Conclusion

There are several ways to navigate through a judgment. Being able to break it down into its components is certainly a useful tool in the road to achieving clarity on the judgment. The components work in tandem and have to be looked at as an interconnected whole. The interactions between the various components are crucial to consider when looking at a judgment.

References

  • Dias, Jurisprudence, Chapter 7, Justice In Deciding Disputes pp. 126-164 (Ed. 5, 2013).

The author has relied upon her experience of reading judgments in law school to articulate the content of this article.


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