Values and decisions: Division in the Supreme Court

Date & time

1–2pm Tuesday 24 July 2018


Phillipa Weeks Staff Library

ANU College of Law, 5 Fellows Road, The Australian National University


Dr Rachel Cahill-O'Callaghan, Cardiff University


For interstate visitors, we offer suggestions for accommodation near ANU.


Nicole Harman
College seminar
Rachel Cahill O'Callaghan

Many facets of the judicial personality have been associated with decision making, including political ideology, activism, attitudes and demographics.  Psychologists have demonstrated that personal values underpin each of these characteristics. This study translates psychological theory into legal practice, applying the theories and techniques developed in psychology to identify the role of personal values on judicial decision making in cases which divide the UK Supreme Court.

The model of values used in this paper is one developed by the psychologist Shalom Schwartz, and extensively used in studies of decision making.  He has shown that all personal values can be encompassed within twelve overarching motivations. While an individual could embrace all of the values, in reaching a decision between opposing values the decision maker will support one value above another. It is this prioritisation of values that is significant in decision making.

This paper presents a novel method of empirically and systematically analysing judicial opinions, which reveals the underlying values contained within them. This technique has revealed an association between value expression and disagreement in the UK Supreme Court. In particular, it has demonstrated that in cases which divided the UK Supreme court, the judgments supporting the majority position exhibited a different prioritisation of values compared to those that supported the minority position. Conversely, values were also associated with agreement. Analysis of the value priorities of individual Justices revealed that Justices who espoused similar value priorities reached similar decisions in hard cases. 

The value/decision paradigm thus provides a new framework to analyse judicial decision making, judicial division and the exercise of judicial discretion in Supreme Court. This study reveals that although the law frames and constrains decision making, in hard cases, cases which divide judicial opinion, personal values play a role. These findings have importance to the debates surrounding judicial decision making, judicial diversity and judicial selection.


  • Rachel Cahill-O'Callaghan »

    Rachel moved into the study of Law from a successful career in academic science in the area of cancer biology and bacterial genetics. She completed a PhD in Science in 1994 at Trinity College (Dublin) and moved to Massachusetts Institute of Technology (Boston) and then to Imperial College (London). This work is widely published and won several international prizes.

    Rachel then changed discipline and completed an LLB in Cardiff in 2007 and was awarded a PhD in law in 2016. Her legal research, which combines theories and techniques from psychology and law, has also won awards including  the SLS Best Paper Prize (2014)  with "Reframing the Judicial Diversity Debate: Personal Values and Tacit Diversity" which is published in  Legal Studies 40.4 (2013): 596-623. Other prizes include the SLS Poster Prize 2012 with "Do Personal Values Tip the Scales of Justice?" and the SLSA Poster Prize 2012 for her work entitled "Personal Values: An Important Element in the Diversity Debate." This work underpins her collaborative comparative work on the High Court of Australia.

    Rachel's interests lie in decision making and facets of personality that influence decision making. She collaorates with academics in the UK and US to examine decision making with law students in an international study examining the influence of values and other indicators of professionalism on ethical decision making.


Updated:  10 August 2015/Responsible Officer:  College General Manager, ANU College of Law/Page Contact:  Law Marketing Team