Friday, December 02, 2011

Judges 'should spell out reason for decisions', say experts - my humanities class

Court judgments do not always have to be lengthy, as long as the reasons behind the decisions are explained clearly.

By K. C. Vijayan & Leonard Lim

This, said experts, is especially important in cases when an appeal against a court decision is being put together and more so when it involves capital offences.

'If the accused and his family do not understand it, then it becomes unacceptable; you are hanging somebody and he should know why he is being executed,' said Association of Criminal Lawyers of Singapore president Subhas Anandan.

Background story
One-paragraph judgment

Weschler Mouantri Andree

Marie Louise v Mouantri Karl-Michael (2009)SGHC 83 *

Decision date: April 7, 2009

Court: High Court

Choo Han Teck, Justice: Our courts cannot grant a divorce to a petitioner whose marriage had already been dissolved by the Swedish Court, whose jurisdiction we recognise.

* SGHC stands for Singapore HighCourt

A landmark ruling by the Court of Appeal on Wednesday, ordering a retrial for a death row inmate on the basis that the trial judge did not give adequate grounds for his decision, has turned the spotlight on how detailed a court's judgment should be.

The appeals court held that the five- paragraph judgment issued by High Court judge Choo Han Teck did not fully explain the reasons for his decision, which condemned Malaysian drug trafficker Thong Ah Fat to hang last year.

The judgment grounds were flawed, the three-judge appeals court found, as the contents were insufficient for it to decide whether the decision was correct.

But the court also made it clear that 'a brief judgment is not necessarily an inadequate one', pointing out there were routine cases based on benchmark sentences that did not require detailed grounds.

The length of court judgments can vary from a single page to more than 50 pages, but experts told The Straits Times that it is not the length that matters but what it conveys.

'I don't think there can be a rule to a length of judgment,' said lawyer Shashi Nathan. 'Different cases, different facts, different legal arguments could result in different lengths of judgment, but one thing we must be able to glean from the judgment is what kind of reasoning the court had in making its findings.'

NUS law school assistant professor David Tan agrees. He said: 'The length of a judgment is not necessarily indicative of the quality of judicial reasoning, but short judgments in respect of a serious or important issue can undermine public confidence in the judiciary.'

Justice Choo, said lawyers The Straits Times spoke to on Thursday, is believed to have written the shortest High Court judgments in recent times, if not on record. But they also say he is a very experienced judge who would have laboured diligently in arriving at his decision.

One judgment in April 2009 comprised a single paragraph ruling that the courts here could not grant a divorce to a petitioner whose marriage had already been dissolved in Sweden.

Mr Anandan said Justice Choo has always been a 'very fair' judge but he admitted that his judgment in Thong's case was 'a bit short' and that the appeals court did the right thing in ordering a retrial.

He added that lawyers would understand what was in the judge's mind when reading a short judgment, but it was more important that the accused, his family members and the public also understood.

'If they can't understand the judgment, how do you expect the man in the street, especially the family of the accused, to understand it?' he added.

Lawyer Amolat Singh agreed. He said: 'The judge sets out why and how he came to the decision in the end. It's like doing a maths question. You cannot just give the answer; you must give the working as well,' he said.

Mr Singh said judges should follow the 'miniskirt principle' - short enough to be interesting but long enough to cover the important parts - when writing their judgments.