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A letter from a judge to a teenager

By: Mark Tottenham BL

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(Originally published in Decisis Law Ireland in 2017)

It is not often that judgments of the superior courts of any country go ‘viral’ online. They are normally written for, and read by, the legal teams in the case. Even where high profile cases are decided, it would be rare for the judgments to be widely read outside of legal circles.

A recent exception arose in a family law case in the United Kingdom. The case was reported as A (Letter to a Young Person), Re (Rev 1) [2017] EWFC 48 (England and Wales Family Court, 26 July 2017), and the title may give a clue as to why it generated so much interest on social media.

At issue was the future of a 14-year-old boy who lived with his mother and stepfather. His father planned to emigrate to a Scandinavian country, and he applied for permission for the boy to emigrate with him. The boy, given the pseudonym ‘Sam’ in the judgment, wanted to go, and gave evidence to the court in support of his father’s application.

Instead of a judgment in the usual form, Mr Justice Peter Jackson chose to write a personal letter to ‘Sam’ to explain his decision. The result is a judgment that is both clear and touching. The judge made it clear that he understood the difficulties experienced by ‘Sam’ in coming from a broken home, with a long history of court proceedings. He also made his reasoning clear, as can be seen from the following passage:

You will remember that at the earlier hearing in May, I made very clear to your father that if he was going to seriously put forward a move to Scandinavia, he had to give the court proper information about where you would be living and going to school, where the money would be coming from, and what the arrangements would be for you to keep in touch with family and friends in England. At this hearing, no information at all has been given. Your father described the move to Scandinavia as an adventure and said that once the court had given the green light, he would arrange everything. That is not good enough.”

The judgment is respectful of the boy’s desire to emigrate with his father, but does not patronise him in coming to a decision that was not what he wanted.

Clearly, it is not possible or desirable that all judgments should be written in such a manner. Decisions involving complex areas of law sometimes require hundreds of pages of legal analysis. However, the result is often a document that is impenetrable to the actual parties in the case - particularly the losing party, who is likely to need his or her legal team to explain the decision. In some appropriate cases judges might consider adding a short addendum in clear English that a layperson could understand, or even addressed directly to the unsuccessful party.

Incidentally, Mr Justice Jackson grew up in Dublin. He has previous form in writing judgments in plain English and has recently been appointed to the Court of Appeal of England and Wales.

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