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Judicial decision making
Judicial decision making

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2.3 Material facts

Not all facts are important for legal reasoning. The facts that are important are called ‘material facts’ (material just means relevant) and are facts that make a difference to the [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] decision or outcome. For example, in a negligence claim arising out of a road traffic accident, it would be a material fact whether or not one of the drivers was using their mobile telephone immediately prior to the accident. If he was using his telephone then the judge may decide that he was negligent, whereas if he was not using his telephone then the judge may not decide he was negligent.

Then there are other facts that are just background and would make no difference to the outcome. For example, the colour of the driver’s shirt would be unlikely to be a material fact.

Factual issues v legal issues

When a case comes to court, the parties may agree on some facts, but disagree on others. The disputed facts are called issues of fact whereas the undisputed facts are called agreed facts. The court has to determine the issues of fact. This course focuses mainly on issues of fact.

This course will start by assuming that the law is certain and agreed on by the parties. However, there are times when the parties disagree what the law is. A disagreement about the law is called an issue of law. You will look at issues of law in more detail later in the course.

Activity 1 Legal fact-finding

Timing: Allow about 20 minutes

Now it’s your turn. The following questions are designed to put you in the shoes of a tribunal of fact in the civil context. At this stage, do not worry about other rules of evidence, other than the legal rules that:

  • the burden of proof lies on the side arguing that a particular fact is true
  • the standard of proof is ‘on the balance of probabilities’, which is 51% or higher.

Once you have made your findings of fact and indicated your confidence, you will be able to see what other people’s views are.

1. Employment discrimination

You are sitting as a judge in the Cardiff Employment Tribunal. The claim is one for race discrimination, which is a statutory tort. The summary of the evidence that you have heard is that the claimant, Allegra Conti, says that her manager, Fiona Boyle, used racist language when raising a disciplinary issue. Fiona Boyle admits using a raised voice, but denies using discriminatory language. There is one other witness, Erika Edwards, another employee who was present at the time, who says that Fiona Boyle did use racial language. However, the words that Erika Edwards says Fiona Boyle used are different to the words the Allegra Conti says were used.

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2. False imprisonment

You are sitting as a member of a civil jury in a complaint for the tort of false imprisonment. The claimant, Tammy Smith, says she was falsely imprisoned for an hour by British Transport Police when she arrived at Newcastle railway station to attend a job interview. Tammy Smith says that she lost her ticket, and two police officers told her very clearly that she could not leave the station master’s office until they had investigated. One of the officers stood in front of the only door, preventing Tammy Smith from leaving. The experience was humiliating and led to Tammy Smith missing her interview. Both officers deny in evidence that Tammy Smith was detained because they say that Tammy Smith could have left the office at any point.

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3. Sale of goods

You are sitting as a judge in the County Court considering a case on the small claims track.

The claimant, Dev Patel, bought an expensive racing bicycle at a car-boot sale from Cameron Brown and is now bringing a claim for breach of contract. Dev Patel says in evidence that Cameron Brown assured him that the bicycle was ‘in perfect working order’, but after he took it home it transpired many of the components were in such a bad condition that replacing them all made the bicycle effectively worthless. Dev Patel says that when he returned to Cameron Brown to ask for a refund, Cameron Brown refused, saying ‘What do you think this is, John Lewis?’. In evidence Cameron Brown says that when Dev Patel asked about the condition, he had in fact said that the bike was ‘sold as seen’.

In relation to the assertion by Dev Patel that Cameron Brown said that the bicycle was in perfect working order, what is your finding of fact?

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In this section you learnt about the first stage of adjudication, fact-finding. In the next section, you will find out about the second stage, decision-making.