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Judgments must be written more clearly – top judge

[28 April 2011] In his Judicial Studies Board annual lecture 2011, held on 16 March 2011, Lord Neuberger, the Master of the Rolls (the judge who presides over the Court of Appeal), said: ‘Clarity is not just important where legislation is concerned. If the law is to be properly accessible, then the courts are under the same duty of accessibility as is placed on the legislature – above all in a common law system, where, albeit within bounds, the judiciary make and develop the law, as well as interpret it. Oscar Wilde said that truth, is “rarely pure and never simple”, and the same may be said of the law. But that is no excuse for judges producing judgments that are readable by few, and comprehendible by fewer still. Indeed, the increasing complexity of the law imposes a greater obligation than ever on judges to make themselves clear.’

Lord Neuberger asserted that ‘clarity and accessibility in judgments is one way in which we can continue to secure open justice in the 21st century’. Ontario Court of Appeal Judge David Watt would no doubt agree: once known for his complex legalese, Watt has transformed himself into a writer ‘more in the vein of American best-selling novelist Elmore Leonard’.

The prominent judge, whose decisions read like crime novels, is causing consternation among traditionalists who favour solemn judgments. Watt recently began a ruling overturning a domestic murder conviction as follows: ‘Early one morning in June, 2006, Melvin Flores closed the book on his relationship with Cindy MacDonald. With a butcher knife embedded in Cindy’s back. Fifty-three blunt force injuries.’ And in a murder case last year, he started: ‘Handguns and drug deals are frequent companions, but not good friends. Rip-offs happen. Shootings do too. Caveat emptor. Caveat venditor. People get hurt. People get killed. Sometimes, the buyer. Other times, the seller. That happened here.’

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