An East Anglia University academic counted every word spoken in the Supreme Court Brexit challenge

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By Katie King on

Apparently this could be the way to predict which side will win…


A reader in politics from the University of East Anglia has counted the number of words spoken by judges and counsel in last week’s Brexit challenge.

Dr Chris Hanretty claims “eleven judges and thirteen counsel spoken almost a million words” during the four day hearing, though the number of words spoken by each person varied greatly.

Graph via Dr Chris Hanretty
Graph via Dr Chris Hanretty

According to a bar chart produced by Hanretty, counsel for the appellant (the government) James Eadie QC was the chattiest of all the barristers and justices, totting up a total word count of around the 300,000 mark.

This is nearly three times the number of words uttered by his nearest rival, Lord Pannick QC, who represented lead claimant Gina Miller in what Hanretty calls “the most important case the Supreme Court has decided since it was created”.

Interestingly, some of the Supreme Court justices were more vocal than the advocates.

Though UK judges tend to take a backseat approach when compared to their counterparts in civil law jurisdictions, president Lord Neuberger spoke more in the hearing than, for example, People’s Challenge representative Helen Mountfield QC (who was the sole female barrister to appear in the case).

In fact, three of the justices appeared in the top half of the 24-strong table: Lords Neuberger, Carnwarth and Mance. However more of the justices appeared in the bottom half, with Lords Hughes, Hodge and Clarke in particular not saying very much at all.

But is this pedantic exercise actually useful, or does Hanretty just have way too much time on his hands?

Unsurprisingly, Oxford-educated Hanretty has punted for the former. He told Medium readers that an analysis of the words spoken by the judges, and specifically an analysis of who these words are directed to, can indicate which side is going to win.

Hanretty — who earlier this year ranked the Supreme Court justices based on their “celebrity” status — said:

What is perhaps more interesting is to look at where judges’ comments went… [This] matters because previous research has suggested that the side which receives more questions is more likely to lose.

The reasoning for this is, in his words, “simple”:

Judges ask questions of counsel in order to highlight weaknesses in their argument. (Judges also ask questions of counsel in order to signal their position to their colleagues). Judges who believe that the case should be decided in favour of the appellants will ask lots of questions of the respondents, and vice versa.

Graph via Dr Chris Hanretty
Graph via Dr Chris Hanretty

On this reasoning, it looks like the government is in for a defeat.

But before you head down to the betting shop, it’s worth noting this research is based entirely on the Supreme Court of the United States, where things work pretty differently to how they do across the pond.