By Prof Judith Masson, Professor of Socio-Legal Studies (University of Bristol Law School).
One key piece of knowledge all law students are expected to grasp early on in their legal career is the difference between what a judge says – dicta or obiter dicta and what a case means – the ratio or ratio decidendi. Even when they know the difference, students and practising barristers often prefer to reach for a quotation from a case. It can be comforting to use a well-rounded phrase from Smith J or Jones LJ and it may at first glance suggest wisdom when it really is just about memory. However, reliance on dicta is a really bad habit, does not make better lawyers and can seriously undermine what the law means.
In the hands of some judges dicta are powerful ways of communicating ideas – judicial soundbites – which make the case and the judge memorable. Lord Denning was a past master at this, making it easy to remember the facts of cases, but not always the law. Indeed Lord Denning’s skill with language enabled him to make or even make up law. Of course he was largely dealing with Common Law, developing contract and tort law rather than interpreting statute. Continue reading →
In all the commentary on the tragic death of Ellie Butler, there has been very little discussion of the decision made to return Ellie to her parents. This was a truly exceptional decision. Ellie had been living with her grand-parents, her special guardians, for 5 years. She had not lived with her mother since she was admitted to hospital at the age of 6 weeks and never lived with her parents together. Indeed her parents only started living together shortly before she was returned to them. Ellie had had very little contact with her parents; contact had been limited by the court and the mother and father did not attend many of their contact sessions. The people who parented Ellie were her grand-parents; she and her parents hardly knew each other.
Special guardianshiporders (SGOs) were introduced in 2002 to provide a framework for permanent care where adoption was not appropriate where children were being cared for within their wider family, as Ellie was, also for older children who have enduring relationships with parents who cannot care for them. Approximately 7,000 SGOs are made each year, around 5,000 in child protection proceedings and 2,000 for children who are not in state care. Continue reading →
By Prof Judith Masson, Professor of Socio-Legal Studies (University of Bristol Law School).*
The Family Court system costs a lot to run. Until 2008 much of the cost of running the courts came from taxes, but increasingly litigants are expected to foot the bill. So the court system cannot be thought of as simply part of securing a Just Society, like the Police, the Armed Services and Parliament, all of which are paid for from taxes. Rather courts exist as a service for those who want to litigate.
Court fees have been raised repeatedly, and for some types of proceedings, including divorce, actually exceed what it costs to provide the service. The court fee for divorce is £550. Applicants for divorce subsidize other cases where the full economic cost cannot be charged. The courts have a monopoly over divorce, which is secured by the criminal law! Remarrying whilst still married is a crime – bigamy.