How to read Court Judgments efficiently

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Court judgements can be long text, even if the case they are about seems to be simple, at first sight. And journalists have little time to read. The deadline is approaching fast. So how to read a judgment efficiently to see what the story is – and where the juice of it is?

Here is advice by lawyer Steve Ogolla: Don’t read the judgement from the beginning to the end. At least this is not the first thing to do.

  1. Get an Overview

Just do this:

Step 1: See who is the plaintiff and who the defendant, and which court has ruled. You find this on the first page.

Step 2: Then, look at the introduction. It will describe the case in brief

Step 3: Stop reading and jump to the very last paragraph. It contains the judgment.

Now you know enough to find out what of the rest – which is in the middle pages – is relevant for your reporting. And you may already be able to decide if this case is worth for the news of your media.

Overview: The Example

Let’s try this out with a case that we have found, when we were trying to find out if anybody has challenged Migori County taxes in the  Migori High Court (for this story). We found no such case, but we found another one instead in the Kenyalaw-database. (We will write another toolbox page soon on how to search that database)

It is this case http://kenyalaw.org/caselaw/cases/view/151581/ – the Migori High Court Civil Case 1 of 2017 which was decided on April 12, 2018. The judgement has 102 paragraphs, and 14 pages in the pdf file which you can download here: Migori-High-Court_Civil_Case_1_of_2017.

Step 1: The plaintiff is a certain Josiah Onyango Otello t/a (trading as) Cargo Secured Services. The defendant is the Migori County Government, namely the Minister for Transport.

Step 2: The Introduction has the case in the second para. It is about “… how the officers of the County Government handled his motor vehicle registration number KCB 262X make Mercedes Benz Prime Mover together with a trailer attached thereto” Now, that is not really a story or a case yet. So we read a bit further into the plaintiff’s claims in para 4, that his vehicle “was impounded by the officers of the Defendants on allegations of illegally participating in some mineral trade. That, the Defendants through their officers caused the motor vehicle to be parked at the County headquarters and so detained it thereon for a period of two months and then unconditionally released it.” And further, in para 5, that he suffered “great losses during the period which the motor vehicle was impounded. That, his businesses collapsed … That, he was blacklisted by the Credit Reference Bureau as a loan defaulter and that he has since lived a very miserable life having lost all what he depended on in his life.” Para 6 lists claimed damages, and para 7 states, what the plaintiff wants. He “prayed for a declaration that the impounding of the motor vehicle was illegal, null and void, general damages, interests and costs of the suit.”

That has made us really curious for step 3.

Step 3: Look at the verdict in the last paragraph. Okay, it is the second last, para No. 101.:  The judge wrote that the plaintiff was fully right when he claimed that the impoundment and detention of his business vehicle was unlawful, null and void. And that the county has to pay, in all, damages of 42.7 million KES and interest to the plaintiff.

Draw your first Conclusion

Wow. That is enough for the lead sentence and some more in the news. By now you know who did what and when and that the county has to pay a lot of damages to the businessman whom the unlawful impoundment has made bankrupt. And you know by now that this ruling is news, let alone by the high damages the county had to pay. We found that out by sorting out and reading just five paragraphs of a long text.

Find the Juice of the Story

Now you can find the juicy details for a longer media report, and they can be found somewhere in the middle between para 7 and para 101. We leave that to you. It’s more rewarding to find out things by oneself. For this, it is good to know about the structure of a court verdict.

The structure of Court Rulings

It is good to know about the structure of a court ruling, which is mostly similar to the structure of this one judgment. Here is the order:

  1. Plaintiff and Defendants

  2. Introduction

  3. Plaintiff’s Cases in more Detail and Defendant’s Cases

  4. Submissions of the Plaintiff and the Defendants

    In No.s 3 and 4 you may already find some details worth to be included in a longer report.
  5. Analysis and Determinations where the judge lists the questions that have to be answered before deciding the case.

In this case judge Antony Charo Mrima has nicely arranged the questions from a) to e) in the beginning. Thereafter the determinations are also arranged from a) to e), with a lot of subquestions. That helps you to find out the legal aspects and the answer to every question the judge has put forward. Hiss answers are in paras 30, 40, 77, 82 and 85.
You can decide yourself which questions and answers are worth looking into. Some of if it is only of legal interest. So, you spare a lot of time.

  1. The Calculation of the Damagesbegins in paragraph 87 (unfortunately without a headline) and ends with para 98.

    Not always necessary to read, but it can be illustrative in this case.

  2. The Disposition, which is the judgement, is at the end.

    In this case the judge has some harsh remarks to offer about the unlawful actions of the county, that would be worth citing:
    “It is high time that public officers be held personally responsible for actions they commit or omit way out of any legal justification since such officers end up hiding under the corporate entity thereby loading their institutions with unnecessary liabilities. Aggrieved parties should in addition consider suing such officers in their personal capacities as well. To that end, devolution will be protected and will ultimately realize the intended objectives.“

Bring Cases into the Light

This is a case worth reporting, found by coincidence on kenyalaw.org.
The media and correspondents in Migori have most certainly already done so, we are sure! Or haven’t they?

It is fun to find more details to be included in a media report. And then find out if Migori County has paid the almost 48 million KES in damages, which other projects had to suffer losses because of this, and if the officers in charge do behave differently by today.

See our next posting on how to find such cases in the database of kenyalaw.org

By Steve Ogolla with Ulli Schauen