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5 Tips For Reading Judgments IN FULL

Judgments make the law.

There is perhaps nothing more important for a lawyer than to have the ability to closely and critically read judgments – often, many of them in a very short time. And ironically, this is not something that is prioritised in law schools: case notes and case summaries are often used as substitutes for reading judgments. This is perhaps because it is quite natural to think that, as long as one knows the holding of a case, one knows the law.

This, however, is a mistake.

You will see it for yourself if you first read the SCC headnotes of a case, then read the judgment itself, and note the difference in your understanding. Reading judgments in full allows you to develop your own unique perspective on the development of the law, as well as giving you a much deeper and clearer analytical grasp of the law as a whole.

[Watch a video on understanding and using judgments as legal authorities. This video is a part of our course on Legal Research.]

Reading judgments is often a thankless task, especially if it involves reading recent judgments of the Supreme Court, which are often very long. There are a few techniques that can make your task easier.

  1. Understand how the case reached the court

The first is to have a clear map in your mind about how the case got to the Supreme Court. Did it begin life as an Article 226 petition before the High Court, and is there a reasoned judgment of the High Court that is being appealed? You may not have time to go back and read the High Court’s judgment itself, but it is important to pay close attention to the Supreme Court’s summary of what the High Court held. Sometimes, the chain will go back even further, beginning in the trial court or a tribunal. In each of these situations, understanding the history of the case will make it far easier for you to grasp what the Supreme Court is doing, and why it’s doing it.

  1. Separate the submissions for the parties (with colours!)

The second thing is something rather more practical: colour-code the document you’re reading, in order to differentiate the submissions of the two sides, and the judicial analysis itself. For example, I highlight the petitioner’s submissions in red, the respondent’s submissions in blue, and the judicial analysis in green. This ensures that you have a clear sense of the structure of the judgment, and its logical flow, especially in cases where the court doesn’t structure its judgments in sequence, but repeatedly moves back and forth between the parties’ submissions, and its own analysis.

  1. Keep statutory provisions handy

Thirdly, keep copies of the laws and statutes that the judgment is referring to with you, either in hard copy, or open in a separate window on your laptop. Normally, judgments will cite the legal provision in full the first time they refer to it, and not after that. Often, however, statutory provisions will be long and complicated, full of “notwithstandings” and “provided that”, and you will not be able to remember them as you go through the judgment. Moreover, many statutes are too complicated to even fully grasp on a first read. So, having them with you, and re-reading them every time the judgment refers back to the statutes, is an excellent way of both following the train of thought in the judgment, as well as allowing yourself to completely grasp – through repeated readings – the nuances and complexities of the laws that the court is dealing with.

  1. Know whether the ruling remains law

Fourthly, when you’re reading a case, it is good to be generally aware of whether the legal position continues to hold. Often, judgments are overruled or reversed by later cases, or overtaken by lawmaking. Case databases often give you tools to help you in this task. For example, SCCOnline will let you know if a judgment has been overruled or reversed. Both Manupatra and IndianKanoon have a particularly useful tool: Manupatra has an icon above the judgment called “Mentioned in”, which gives you a list of all the subsequent cases that have cited the judgment you’re reading. IndianKanoon has a link titled “Cited by”, which does the same. After you finish reading your judgment, it’s a good policy to quickly skim through the list of cases that appears in the “Mentioned in” or “Cited by” column, just to ensure that there has been no fundamental change in the law.

  1. Remember that the court’s analysis is still the most important part of the judgment

And lastly – if your research involves reading recent judgments, you will find them to be of inordinate length, often running into hundreds of pages. This is because the Supreme Court has taken to reproducing the parties’ submissions at length before moving on to its own analysis. In such a situation, the best way out might be to read as much of the submissions as is necessary for you to attain a grasp of the key arguments (on both sides), skim the rest, and then move straight on to the Court’s analysis. It is not ideal, but there is perhaps no other way to do it.

Rough Edges: The Vanishing Tribe of Labour Reporters

A column reflecting on contemporary society and politics.

When and if the media chooses to focus on risky working conditions, it is mostly prompted by perverse reasons like, for example, large-scale loss of lives or incidents of violence. Credit: Reuters

Over the last two decades, the labour beat has all but disappeared from media newsrooms. The labour reporter belongs to a journalistic tribe which is today virtually non-existent. Unfortunately, the only time that we become aware of this this void is when tragedies like the one in Bawana hog headlines. At least 17 workers died when a fire engulfed an illegal firecracker packaging unit in there last month. It appears that the media acknowledges the existence of workers only when such catastrophic events take place.

On such occasions, we encounter workers as flesh and blood persons, women, men, and children, who spend inordinately longs hours working in innumerable illegal factories. More often than not, these factories operate in dangerously hazardous conditions. Yet these conditions and the lack of enforcement of any kind of labour rules in unregulated workplaces mostly go unreported.

When and if the media chooses to focus on risky working conditions, it is mostly prompted by perverse reasons like, for example, large-scale loss of lives or incidents of violence. Recall in this context, the reporting of the violence by workers at Manesar’s Maruti Suzuki car manufacturing plant in July 2012, which left a senior HR executive dead and scores of officials and workers injured. More than a hundred workers were arrested, of whom the court convicted 31 and acquitted 117 last year.

While the workers’ violence was reported at great length, long-term reportage that could have given the incident some context was largely missing from the headlines and coverage. What was presented as a question of justifiable or unjustifiable violence should, in fact, have been one of trying to understand what led to the violence in the first place.

The fact was that workers at the Manesar plant had been agitating for months on a series of important issues, such as removing discrepancies in the salaries of permanent and contractual workers, better work conditions etc. Even as issues were building up at the factory, there was no sustained media reporting of them. By not reporting the violence that erupted against this background, the media de-contextualised the conditions they were challenging.

On such crucial issues, the media narrative of the working class always remains unfinished. This is primarily because of a lack – if not absence – of sustained coverage of labour-related issues over months, years and even decades. In the face of such huge gaps in the spectrum of information and knowledge, the questions that surface in times of tragedy or violence, hang in a vacuum. The media fails to connect immediate tragedies to larger, long-term processes that govern the spheres of economy and labour, particularly the informal sector, which employs more than 90% of India’s workers.

In addition to dehumanising the working class, media invisibility of such a large section of the country’s population, renders our knowledge about them and their  lives sketchy and abstract. Paradoxically, even though phrases like informalisation of labour are regularly bandied about in public discourse, workers themselves are conspicuously missing from the narrative. At best, they are reduced to statistical numbers to buttress one argument or another.

Employees work inside a garment factory in Mumbai. Credit: Reuters/Danish Siddiqui

Consider the broader political-economic scenario in which the labour beat was first marginalised and then gradually effaced in most newspapers. Before the onset of liberalisation, labour occupied a prime position in the roster of beats. A quintessential labour reporter used to keep track not just of the labour ministry, but also of trade unions and workers. Even then, there were problems in the way media reported issues related to labour. Much of the reportage centred around economic demands – primarily steered by political party-affiliated trade unions – and little on occupational and workplace health hazards. But the important thing to note here is that workers’ issues weren’t totally excluded from media coverage then.

That slowly changed after liberalisation began in the early 1990s. Downgrading of the labour reporter and the labour ministry went hand-in-hand as the economy was restructured. The subsequent weakening of central trade unions – particularly Left trade unions like the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU) and the All India Trade Union Congress (AITUC) – further helped delegitimise the labour beat.

As public discourse became more skewed towards identifying GDP rates as the sole marker of the country’s economic well-being, the condition of workers in the informal sector seemed to increasingly matter less. The media became enamoured by growth rates, and the labour ministry became a shadow of its former self. Labour reportage became “business journalism.”

One of the themes has that frequently come up in media and government circles since the 1990s, is labour law reform. At the centre of the discussion is the issue of rationalising labour. This entails amending the Industrial Disputes Act, bringing in an exit policy to facilitate worker retrenchment – a move enthusiastically backed by business and government.

The demand has not gone out of vogue. The Narendra Modi government, too, frequently talks about the need to reform labour laws. What is of interest here are the different ways in which the subject has been reported over the years. Two decades ago, there was extensive reporting about the exit policy and its implications for workers, particularly in the informal sector.

The labour portfolio had still not been downgraded at the government level. Unlike today, when the labour minister is often a weak or dismissible leader in the party, the Narasimha Rao government had a powerful labour minister in P.A. Sangma. Liberalisation opened up new spaces of engagement and conflict with labour leaders and workers. One of the primary issues of dispute was the exit policy. Faced with the trade unions’ intractable opposition to the policy, the Rao government had to finally withdraw it. What’s important to note is that the media diligently reported the discussion.

Two important things have happened since then. First, with liberalisation turning to dogma, workplaces started to change, and major trade unions found themselves unable to adapt to the changed context. Gradually, labour leaders made themselves irrelevant, as the informal sector came to be regarded as the main sector of the economy. Second, alongside the growing irrelevance of the labour minister and trade union leaders, the tribe of labour reporters also disappeared.

This is not a phenomenon peculiar to India. A report in the Columbia Journalism Review in March 2015 says: “The ranks of the labor beat have indeed hollowed out alongside the atrophy of organized labor, continuing as news organizations have more recently hemorrhaged cash. But the beat historically focused on unions, a focus unsuited for an economy in which just 11 percent of American workers belong to them. ‘The old fashioned idea that you’re covering just organized labor went away a long time ago,’ said Dean E. Murphy, business editor of the New York Times.”

Ominously, as discontent among working people grows, and the media fixates on violent tragedies when they occur, millions of people around the country become mere statistics, their lives disappearing further from our view with each passing day.