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Tombstone Ltd v Raja & Heals

The Court of Appeal has commented on the proper use of skeleton arguments in Tombstone Ltd v Raja & Heals.

Although the case had nothing to do with employment law, the comments are relevant to skeleton arguments generally – in the EAT as well as the Court of Appeal.

The full comments of the Court are set out below. In summary, they warn against excessive length and make clear that skeleton arguments are intended as an aid to oral advocacy.

This is not straightforward. It is clear that in Tombstone itself the skeleton was too long. It is also true that a concise and focused argument will be more persuasive than a verbose one.

On the other hand, taking the guidance in Tombstone too much to heart is probably a mistake. In our experience, ‘skeleton’ arguments do now almost invariably amount to full written submissions capable of standing alone. Whether that’s a good thing is open to debate; but the reality is that the members of appellate courts will normally have read the skeletons and formed at least a provisional view before the hearing begins. That means you have to do a lot of the work of persuading them in your skeleton – especially as the chances are your opponent will have.

If some judges will bark at you for producing an excessively fleshy skeleton, others will raise an eyebrow if you try to say anything in oral submissions that isn’t covered in your skeleton – or, worse, make up their minds on the written material and then scarcely let you get a word in edgeways once you’re on your feet.

The key is to understand that a well written skeleton can make your whole argument, without becoming over long.

Lord Justice Mummery said:

122. We end this judgment with a criticism of the excessive length and complexity of Tombstone’s skeleton argument. It has 110 pages of text plus 64 pages of Appendices. Although its authors set out to assist the court, as well as the client, by a very thorough presentation of Tombstone’s case, it is sensible to set reasonable limits to its length.

123. Mr Onslow described it “as an extremely long document” for a case that, while unusual, was not unduly complex. The appeal was from a judgment of modest length (27 pages). It was very hard, he said, to see what justified such voluminous arguments. Most of the legal issues have been settled by existing authority. No primary findings of fact are challenged on the appeal. He added that, from Healys’ perspective, this had added to the length of their skeleton argument (56 pages), which they had tried to keep as short as possible. It had also added considerably to the cost and length of the appeal.

124. The length of Tombstone’s skeleton did not assist the court. In fact, it tended to detract from Tombstone’s case, which was accurately and far more succinctly stated by Mr Onslow in his written and oral responses to it. His team adopted the technique of briefly stating the points taken by Tombstone and then concisely commenting on them.

125. Practitioners who ignore practice directions on skeleton arguments (see CPR 52PD paras 5.10 “Each point should be stated as concisely as the nature of the case allows”) and do so without the imposition of any formal penalty are well advised to note the risk of the court’s negative reaction to unnecessarily long written submissions. The skeleton argument procedure was introduced to assist the court, as well as the parties, by improving preparations for, and the efficiency of, adversarial oral hearings, which remain central to this court’s public role.

126. We remind practitioners that skeleton arguments should not be prepared as verbatim scripts to be read out in public or as footnoted theses to be read in private. Good skeleton arguments are tools with practical uses: an agenda for the hearing, a summary of the main points, propositions and arguments to be developed orally, a useful way of noting citations and references, a convenient place for making cross references, a time-saving means of avoiding unnecessary dictation to the court and laborious and pointless note-taking by the court.

127. Skeleton arguments are aids to oral advocacy. They are not written briefs which are used in some jurisdictions as substitutes for oral advocacy. An unintended and unfortunate side effect of the growth in written advocacy (written opening and closing submissions and “speaking notes”, as well as skeleton arguments) has been that too many practitioners, at increased cost to their clients and diminishing assistance to the court, burden their opponents and the court with written briefs. They are anything but brief. The result is that there is no real saving of legal costs, or of precious hearing, reading and writing time. As has happened in this case, the opponent’s skeleton argument becomes longer and the judgment reflecting the lengthy written submissions tends to be longer than is really necessary to explain to the parties why they have won or lost an appeal.

128. The skeletal nature of written advocacy is in danger of being overlooked. In some cases we are weighed down by the skeleton arguments and when we dare to complain about the time they take up, we are sometimes told that we can read them “in our own time” after the hearing. In our judgment, this is not what appellate advocacy is about, or ought to be about, in this court.

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