Hardly a week goes by without the media putting out a story about a current or recent family law-related case that is riddled with errors and falsehoods. Sometimes the errors are genuine. Sometimes, sadly, they are driven by an agenda – usually with the aim of showing the family justice system in a bad light.
A classic example of this was the recent tragic case of Charlie Gard. There were an awful lot of stories circulating in the media suggesting that poor Charlie was the victim of some sort of conspiracy by an uncaring system. However, if you read the judgments of the courts involved in the case, particularly those of Mr Justice Francis, you’ll find that nothing could be further from the truth.
The moral is clear: don’t rely on mainstream media reports of cases. If you want to know what really happened in a case including, in particular, why the court made the decision it did, then the only sure way to find out is to read the full law report, containing the judgment of the court.
These days the judgments in most important cases are made freely available online, often published on the same day that they are handed down by the court. So where do you find them?
Well, there are several sites that publish family law reports, but the main one is the British and Irish Legal Information Institute, better known by its acronym, ‘Bailii’. Bailii publishes the reports of most important cases, and has a huge database, containing nearly 300,000 searchable documents. The most important decisions are also published on the Courts and Tribunals Judiciary website, and all Supreme Court decisions are published on the Supreme Court website.
Finding the law report on one of those sites may not be easy, particularly if you do not know the name of the case (many family law reports are anonymised, so you will not know the parties’ names, which would otherwise usually be included in the name of the case). If you are lucky, the online version of the mainstream media report of the case might link to the full law report (pleasingly this is being done with increasing frequency by the more reputable media). But how do you find the report if it is not?
If you want to look for a report on Bailii then there are several ways to go about it. If the case is recent you can look through the recent decisions/additions lists. If you have the case details you can just search the Bailii website, although if you do not have the case name this can be difficult.
A simple technique that can work for other sites is just searching on Google. This can be surprisingly effective, especially if the report was published on the Courts and Tribunals Judiciary website.(*Editor’s note: Bailii is not indexed by Google so cannot be searched on that site)
Another option, without wishing to blow my own trumpet, is a site of my own where I publish links to family law cases, here. The site sorts cases by subject matter, which can be useful if you don’t know the case name.
Last but not least, links to the full reports of many cases are of course included in many of the posts on this blog.
Once you have found the law report there just remains the small matter of reading and understanding it. Now I realise for non-lawyers reading a law report can be quite daunting (some reports can be daunting for lawyers to read as well), but generally they are much easier to read than they used to be, and many judges these days go out of their way to make reports clear and understandable, as in this case earlier this year.
Reading and understanding a law report may be a grind for a non-lawyer, but it can certainly be worthwhile. Not only will you gain a better understanding of what the case was about and why exactly the court came to the decision it did, but you will also most likely learn a lot about the law along the way.
Obviously this post is primarily intended to be for the benefit of lay people without a lawyer, whether they are involved in a family case of their own, or just have an interest in the subject of family law. If you are involved in a case and have a lawyer then they will obviously know the correct points to take from cases relevant to your matter, but unfortunately a growing number of litigants are having to manage without one of those, researching the relevant law on their own. Following the advice in this post could help a few find the correct answers to their problems.