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The Australian National University

The Australian High Court and Social Facts: A Content Analysis Study

Kylie Burns (2012) 40 (3)

Judicial reasons often include general statements about the nature and behaviour of people and institutions and the nature of the world and society. These statements might be called social facts ('SF') and are made as part of judicial development and general application of law. The presence of SF statements in judicial reasoning in Australian cases has been acknowledged by commentators and judges. However, there has been little empirical examination of this phenomenon. This article discusses a content analysis study of SF in negligence cases in the Australian High Court. This study confirms that judges do refer to SF in their judicial reasoning and that SF play a range of roles in judicial reasoning. This includes predicting social, economic and behavioural consequences of legal rules, as part of setting a context or background to judicial reasons, and as a tool to evaluate adjudicative facts. SF do not generally dominate judicial reasoning. However, they appear to have a significant role to play in certain complex and more important cases. While there were overall commonalities in the way judges used SF, some individual differences between judges emerged. Judges do not use SF in all cases in the same way. Judges referred to SF more in high significance cases, and cases with multiple separate judgments. Judges also referred to SF more in single and dissenting judgments than in joint and majority judgments. Most SF referred to by judges were not sourced or referenced in any way and reference to empirical research was very rare. Where a source or reference for a SF was given by a judge it was usually to a legal source. Most SF appeared to source from judicial 'common sense' with the potential dangers this brings to the accuracy and legitimacy of judicial reasoning.

Vol 40, Issue 3, 2012

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