A Century of Judicial Style: Changing Patterns in Judgment Writing on the High Court 1903–2001

Published date01 June 2004
Date01 June 2004
Subject MatterArticle
Matthew Groves
and Russell Smyth
In a recent issue of the Australian Law Journal Enid Campbell argued that both the
length of High Court judgments and the number of multiple separate High Court
judgments has increased and that this is counterproductive.1 This view echoes similar
concerns expressed by some judges2 and others in the profession.3 This argument is
based on several assumptions about the High Court that are widely held among
lawyers, but which have not been subject to any detailed empirical research.4 Those
assumptions are:
(a) High Court judgments have become significantly longer in recent times.
(b) There is an increase in the number of concurring judgments on the High Court.
(c) There is an increase in the number of dissenting judgments on the High Court.
BA LLB (Hons) PhD (Monash), Lecturer, Faculty of Law, Monash University.
# BEc (Hons) LLB (Hons) MEc (Monash), PhD (London), Professor, Department of
Economics, Faculty of Business & Economics, Monash University. The authors are grateful
to Enid Campbell and an anonymous referee for helpful comments on this article.
1 Enid Campbell, 'Reasons for Judgment: Some Consumer Perspectives' (2003) 77 Australian
Law Journal 62.
2 Justice Brian Beaumont, 'Contemporary Judgment Writing: The Problem Restated' (1999) 73
Australian Law Journal 743; Chief Justice John Doyle, 'Judgment Writing: Are There Needs
for Change?' (1999) 73 Australian Law Journal 737. The current Chief Justice of the High
Court recently remarked '[a]s for style in judgment writing, this is a subject worthy of a
paper of its own. By saying nothing about it on this occasion, I hope to set an example of
judicial restraint': Chief Justice Murray Gleeson, 'The Centenary of the High Court: Lessons
From History' (Speech delivered at the Thirteenth AIJA Oration in Judicial Administration,
The Banco Court, Supreme Court of Victoria, Melbourne, Friday 3 October 2003) 11.
3 See Graeme Orr, 'Verbosity and Richness: Current Trends in the Craft of the High Court'
(1998) 6 Torts Law Journal 291.
4 Recently some attempt has been made to document trends in judgment writing over a
limited specified period. For example, for a recent study which offers statistics for the
Gleeson Court see Andrew Lynch, 'The Gleeson Court on Constitutional Law: An
Empirical Analysis Of Its First Five Years' (2003) 26 University of New South Wales Law
Journal 32. However, there are no studies which document trends in judgment writing over
the history of the Court.
256 Federal Law Review Volume 32
This article attempts to test these assumptions using hard data. To do this, we analyse
trends in High Court judgments using data on all cases reported in the Commonwealth
Law Reports over the period 1903–2001. We present findings on trends in the length of
High Court judgments and the proportion of joint, concurring and dissenting
judgments over this period. We also present statistics on the judgment length and the
number of joint, concurring and dissenting judgments authored by each Justice.
In addition to testing speculation about recent trends in judgment writing on the
High Court, an empirical exercise such as this may assist in appreciating the way in
which the work of the Court is performed and the complexity of the legal controversies
which it faces.5 It can also provide insights into how judicial reasoning and the Court
as a policy-making institution have evolved over time. As Lawrence Friedman and his
colleagues explained:
The style of opinions is as good an indicator as we have of what counts as sound legal
reasoning for any given era. … Moreover, a more policy-oriented conception of the
judicial role arguably could be reflected in another 'objective' facet of appellate opinions
— a higher incidence of dissenting and separate concurring opinions.6
At the level of individual Justices, statistics on differences in concurrences and dissents
could reflect differences in ideology or methodology between Justices which, once
documented, deserve further discussion and scrutiny by legal commentators.7
We use data on all High Court cases in which there were panels of at least three
Justices reported in the Commonwealth Law Reports decided between 1903 and 2001.
This time period covers all cases reported in the first 205 volumes of the Commonwealth
Law Reports. We focus on cases in the Commonwealth Law Reports for two reasons. First,
the Commonwealth Law Reports are the authorised reports of the High Court. Secondly,
the Commonwealth Law Reports span the whole history of the Court and, therefore,
provide a continuous source of data.
The data were collected through reading and recording the outcome of each case.
While strictly speaking a judgment refers to the final orders of the Court, we use the
term to refer to the reasons for Justices' opinions on what the final orders of the Court
should be. The judgments in each case were classified into one of four categories: (a)
joint judgments; (b) concurring judgments; (c) short concurring judgments; and (d)
dissenting judgments. In adopting this approach we use these terms in a manner
consistent with the recent literature on measuring (dis)agreement on the High Court,
particularly the methodology suggested by Andrew Lynch.8 We classified a judgment
5 Ibid. See also Jean Louis Goutal, 'Characteristics of Judicial Style in France, Britain and the
USA' (1976) 24 American Journal of Comparative Law 43.
6 Lawrence Friedman et al, 'State Supreme Courts: A Century of Style and Citation' (1981) 33
Stanford Law Review 773, 773-4.
7 Lynch, 'The Gleeson Court on Constitutional Law', above n 4. See also Andrew Lynch,
'Dissent: The Rewards and Risks of Judicial Disagreement in the High Court of Australia'
(2003) 27 Melbourne University Law Review 724.
8 See Andrew Lynch, 'Dissent: Towards a Methodology for Measuring Judicial Disagreement
in the High Court of Australia' (2002) 24 Sydney Law Review 470. See also Lynch, 'The
Gleeson Court on Constitutional Law', above n 4; Michael Coper, 'Concurring Judgments'
in Tony Blackshield, Michael Coper and George Williams (eds), The Oxford Companion to the

To continue reading

Request your trial

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT