Forming good arguments should be a basic part of a lawyer’s job description, but according to Lord Justice of Appeal Sir Rupert Jackson, there is one type of argument they consistently and frustratingly blunder with. Skeleton arguments – written outlines of the key points that a lawyer wishes to make in a court case – are frequently prepared poorly and lawyers are consistently failing to grasp the message that they need to improve.
According to Lord Justice Jackson, preparing good skeleton arguments is “not rocket science.” However, he claims that many lawyers still produce arguments which are of “poor quality and excessive length” and this makes the job of judges unnecessarily harder. Faced with a long, rambling and needlessly complex document which is supposed to serve as a short summary, it is hard to work out what key points are being made and which facts are contained in the document.
“A bad skeleton argument,” said Lord Justice Jackson, “simply adds to the paper jungle through which judges must hack their way in an effort to identify the issues and the competing arguments.” Meanwhile, he acknowledged that judges do receive many good skeleton arguments as well, and that these are “a real help to judges when they are pre-reading the (usually voluminous) bundles.”
Providing poor skeleton arguments has the potential to sap a judge’s time as well as making it harder for them to properly prepare for the case. This could needlessly complicate and potentially even draw out proceedings, as judges approach the case without the clear idea they should have of the key points.
Jackson’s comments were made as part of a recent Court of Appeal judgement, where he criticised the appellant for coming up with “35 pages of rambling prolixity.” He suggested that in fact, a skeleton argument should be no longer than 25 pages – and in most cases it should be much shorter than that.
A good skeleton argument, he suggested, should provide a “concise, user-friendly introduction” to a case’s main issues, key facts and the arguments that a lawyer intends to put forward. It should reference other relevant materials and allow judges to form a clear, basic idea of the case before entering the courtroom, thus facilitating clear and smooth proceedings.
These concepts, he said, are not difficult. But while many good skeleton arguments are put forward, many other lawyers have repeatedly failed to grasp them.