New Supreme Court initiative on formal judgment summaries welcomed

Legal advice body says move will increase public confidence in the judicial process

A new initiative by the Supreme Court in providing formal one-page summaries of its judgments has been widely welcomed, including by lawyers and campaigners for improved access to justice.

Eilis Barry, Chief Executive Officer of the Free Legal Advice Centres (FLAC), described the move, introduced on a pilot basis, as "very positive" and an important contribution to increasing public confidence in the judicial process.

The Supreme Court previously occasionally provided summaries, usually extending over a small number of pages, of some significant judgments but summaries were not regularly provided.

At the collective initiative of the court, presided over by Chief Justice Donal O’Donnell, who took up the post last month, the court has now introduced a practice of providing a short formal summary to accompany its detailed judgments, which can sometimes extend up to 100 pages.


The first judgment to be accompanied by such a summary was delivered in recent days and the second was delivered on Tuesday.

A five judge Supreme Court provided a one page summary document on Tuesday, alongside a copy of a 24 page judgment in which it dismissed a man’s appeal over a Circuit Court judge’s refusal to recuse himself from hearing a retrial of diesel laundering charges against the man.

The summary set out the outcome of the appeal in two sentences and the reasons for the court’s decision in three short paragraphs. The background to the appeal was set out in one paragraph and the composition of the court was also provided.

It noted the summary was being provided “to assist in understanding the court’s decision” and that the full judgment of the court, not the summary, is “the only authoritative document” forming part of the reasons for that decision.

Effectiveness review

The publication of summaries for Supreme Court judgments will continue on a pilot basis for this law term after which it will be reviewed by the court, and relevant Courts Service staff, to assess its effectiveness.

The development was welcomed on Twitter by lawyers, legal academics and students, campaigners, journalists and politicians.

It follows moves by some judges in other courts, including the High Court's Mr Justice Max Barrett, to make judgments more accessible. Some years ago, Mr Justice Barrett began attaching a short summary to some of his judgments, written in accessible language without legal jargon, for the purpose of explaining his findings directly to the litigants involved. Those summaries were usually provided to the parties in family and asylum cases.

Reacting to the Supreme Court's initiative, Eilis Barry noted the National Adult Literacy Agency told the recent Access to Justice Conference, organised by a committee established by former Chief Justice Frank Clarke, of the importance of ensuring the public can access legal documents and judgments in more accessible forms.

“Under human rights legislation here, there is a duty on all public bodies, including the courts, to promote equality and human rights in carrying out their services,” she also noted.

“The Supreme Court move is a step in the right direction and we welcome it.”

Mary Carolan

Mary Carolan

Mary Carolan is the Legal Affairs Correspondent of the Irish Times