Appealing inadequate reasons: If you are unhappy with the outcome of your family law court matter and are considering an appeal, there are limited grounds on which you can do so. It’s always important to remember that an appeal is not a second try at having your matter heard but instead is a path to overturning the decision of a trial judge if you feel they made a mistake. Some commonly argued grounds for appeal include: if the judge didn’t properly consider the evidence, if the judge made a decision that was plainly wrong, if there was a denial of natural justice, or if the judge gave inadequate reasons for the decision. In this blog I’ll take a quick look at appealing inadequate reasons in family court.
In all judicial matters in Australia, judges are required to give reasons outlining their decisions. This is because parties need to be left in no doubt as why certain orders were made in their case, and to give them confidence that the judicial decision was arrived at logically, not capriciously.
Whether or not a judge’s reasons are inadequate is subjected to a well-established legal test: reasons can be seen as inadequate if an appeal court is unable to work out the reasoning that the trial decision was based on, or if justice is not seen to be done.
The following factors are relevant when considering adequacy of reasons.
The reasons have to give an intelligible explanation of the judge’s process of reasoning–this is known as the “path of reasoning” requirement. The reasons need to expose the path of reasoning and would be considered unintelligible if the reader could be left wondering which of several possible routes the judge took to the conclusion. Failure to expose the path of reasoning is an error of law. As such, judges can’t just give a general pronouncement that they have considered the evidence and formed a conclusion. Similarly they can’t just set out both arguments and state that one side’s argument is preferred.
Properly explain evidence
The delivery of reasons needs to identify that evidence which was accepted by the trial judge and that which is rejected, and why. It needs to make crystal clear that the judge took into account all the relevant evidence and gave each piece appropriate weight. If any material was rejected, a judge should refer to that and explain why.
Explain conclusions going against evidence
If the conclusion reached goes against any evidence to the contrary, the judge needs to explain why.
Deal with significant issues
A judge doesn’t have to address every single submission or argument advanced through a hearing in the reasons. Nor do they need to outline every thought that crossed their mind as they proceeded towards their conclusion. Obviously the reasons should address principal issues on which a decision would turn. But they should also address any submission worthy of serious consideration, any substantial points raised, and any findings on material questions of fact. Reasons should also cover any substantial arguments or issues raised by the parties and explain why the arguments were accepted or rejected.
In the past, inadequate reasons have sometimes been described as being “brief”, “conclusory”, “bland”, “mechanical” and “unspecific”. Note though that in relation to briefness, the length of reasons is unrelated to whether or not they are adequate: even long reasons could be inadequate. The question is whether the reasons were sufficient, not whether they were written too briefly.
Make sure you get early legal advice on the commerciality and likely prospects of an appeal, to prevent spending time and money on an action if it probably won’t succeed. If you find it is difficult to obtain a legal opinion within the 28 day deadline from the trial decision, it’s recommended you file a Notice of Appeal to reserve your right to pursue an appeal if you intend to. If you then get legal advice that you are unlikely to succeed with your appeal, you would simply abandon the appeal.
You might like to take a look at a recent appeal case (pseudonymised as Warnett & Amerson) which dealt with insufficiency of reasons. In the case involving the unacceptable risk of harm to a child, the father was successful in appealing his matter and obtaining a new hearing, as the trial judge’s reasons were found to be inadequate and therefore representing an error of law.
You can also read information about the Family Court’s appeals process here.
Please note our blogs are not legal advice. For information on how to obtain the correct legal advice, please contact Alliance Family Law.