In a post from a few weeks ago, I lamented the lack of flair in legal writing. Although it’s certainly not a “need-to-have”, it’s certainly a “nice-to-have”. Throughout legal education and practice, you will likely have to read many, many decisions, and most of them are – to not put too fine of a point on it – dry as dust. The legal arguments may be compelling, significant, and of lasting importance, but the prose less so.
It is human nature to want to be entertained, even when reading dry legal writing. This is, of course, why Lord Denning has proven to be so enduring and popular. His judgments were colourful, informative, and yes, entertaining. After reading a Lord Denning decision, you are both entertained and informed. Of course, many do not necessarily subscribe to this opinion, believing that such writing undermines the proper gravity that should be afforded to the law. On a personal level, I think that, as with many things in life, a balance should be struck. To my mind, taking the time to write judgments that are not boilerplate demonstrates that the judge is engaged and wants others to be as well. While the realities of time constraints means that taking the personalized approach to each and every judgment is unlikely at best and foolhardy at worst, it is always refreshing when something comes to your attention that demonstrates that not every decision is bloodless (yet).
Although R. v. Duncan was released a month ago, it just recently came to my attention. It is nothing if not extremely entertaining, chronicling the story of Matthew Duncan, who was rather forcefully arrested and tasered, where he eventually found himself before Fergus O’Donnell, the author of the decision, representing himself. And doing a rather poor job of it, to boot. As Abraham Lincoln famously stated – he who represents himself has a fool for a client.
As with many “literary” decisions, it has found itself to be the subject of quite a bit of controversy. In this case, in addition to the usual concerns about the appropriateness of the bench as a venue for judges to exercise their literary aspirations, there have been concerns the fact that O’Donnell so openly mocks the defendant (despite eventually acquitting him).
As I mentioned previously, it really comes down to striking the balance. However, I must concede that however entertaining it may have been to read Justice O’Donnell’s evisceration of Duncan, the old adage of “a time and a place” did cross my mind. Perhaps it is in the eye of the beholder, so take a look for yourself and decide!