What's the point of reading cases?

One question I get asked a lot is "why do I need to bother reading cases?" It's a good question. Why plough through 30 pages of a lengthy judgment where different Law lords put forward conflicting, and potentially confusing views, if you don't have to? For full-time University students whose finances permit the avoidance of part time work (if many of these fortunate souls exist these days) a leisurely afternoon in the library poring over the finer points of Lord X's dicta may be a very pleasant distraction, but what about those students who have to juggle work, family and other issues? Is it worth the investment in time and energy when textbooks and lecture notes point out the vital aspects of each case?

My answer has to be a resounding "Yes". Of course time constraints mean that it would be impossible to read the full judgment of every case you encounter, or even the majority of them, but the full reading of selected cases can be fascinating and gives you a deeper understanding of the issues on so many levels.

Reading cases can be complex, and sometimes the slight differences between judgments can leave you feeling a little confused....but so well worth the time and effort to follow the arguments. There are lots of grey areas in the law. We often think of law as something very firm and definite - legal/illegal, win/lose but in reality it is far more subtle than that. In order for the law to be able to develop and move forward we have to have flexibility. The slight divergence in reasoning between senior judges in one case can give Counsel in another case a chink of light, an opportunity to put forward an argument that might otherwise seem to run contrary to accepted belief. Without this room for manoevre the law would become stale and rigid and the gap that sometimes seems to exist between law and justice would move ever further apart. Remember why the courts of Equity evolved to mitigate the harsh unbending nature of the common law!

There are more practical benefits too. Even my hardened Ilex students, who enjoy procedure rules and dislike those nasty grey areas, grudgingly accept that reading cases can have some practical benefits. It makes cases more memorable. Sometimes the most ridiculous details have a way of sticking in the mind and helping you to remember a case. Take G (and another) for example. My class were struggling to remember this one (and not altogether thrilled at the prospect of reading 20+ pages of judgment) but they now admit that, oddly enough, they remember that it involves 2 kids setting fire to wheelie bins in the back yard of a Co-op in Newport Pagnell. There's something about the backyard of a Co-op in Newport Pagnell that sticks in the mind.....probably just the sheer banality of it. Whatever the reason, they now remember the case and I'm hopeful they will remember some of the finer points of Lord Bingham's judgment as well!

Another appealing point about reading judgments is that you get a sense of the judges; a sense of them as real people, as individuals. For example, look at the case of Dyson v Fox (http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWCA/Civ/1975/8.html)  and compare Lord Denning's style with that of his colleagues. Lord Denning's style is more personal, it has a storytelling quality. The other judges are more balanced, more objective and, it must be conceded, less biased. This sense of individual judges and their style can often be a help in trying to understand decisions which otherwise seem difficult to fathom.

Let's not forget the role of the dissenting judgment. When you read about a case in a textbook you usually read about the decision that was made, the ratio. Less often do you read about the dissenting opinions, and yet these can be so illuminating. The dissenting judgments of Lord Goff alone are worth as much of your time as you can possibly give them and, for me at least, the study of law would have been far less rewarding without them.

Allow me to be biased here (shall we call it Denning style?) I love case law. In these days of the new Supreme Court I keep reading suggestions that perhaps simple consensus judgments would be a user-friendly way forward. I do hope not. We might as well simply switch over to an entirely codified system and feed it all into a super computer that can ruthlessly apply its binary yes/no in order to determine the result quickly, cheaply and entirely without soul. Until that sad day arrives, my advice is to spend as much time as you can getting to grips with the key judgments...it will be well worth the effort and, who knows, you might even come to enjoy it!

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