Also known as a declaratory ruling, a declaratory judgment is a declaration by a judge in a court of law that identifies the specific rights, privileges and obligations of all parties involved in some type of dispute. Judgments of this type are considered final and legally binding, but do not include orders to either party about how they are to proceed. Many judicial systems around the world include provisions for the issuing of this type of ruling or judgment, often as a means of settling disputes before they actually result in some sort of full-scale lawsuit.
Depending on the structure of the legal system within the country under consideration, a declaratory judgment may be issued by one judge, and some type of relief ordered by another judge at a later date. There are situations in which a judge will make the judgment, then immediately follow with specific actions that must be taken by each of the parties involved in the dispute. When this occurs, it is still a point of law that the declaratory judgment stands as a separate ruling from the relief ordered by the court. This creates a situation where one or both parties may be bound by the declaratory ruling, but be in a position to appeal the relief that was ordered.
A declaratory judgment may help prevent the need for further litigation, simply by making clear the rights and responsibilities of each party under the law. For example, in the event that a former employee shares proprietary information with a competitor, such as a customer list, the judge may determine that the former employee was in violation of the terms of his or her employment contract. In that instance, the judge will rule in favor of the former employer and affirm that the customer list is the property of the employer, not the former employee or the competitor who received the data. Assuming that the competitor does return all hard copy and electronic documents to the owner and does not use the data to pursue customers, there is a good chance that the owner will not pursuer further legal action.
In family law, a declaratory judgment may be entered to establish paternity. In this situation, the judge will consider all available evidence to determine if one party in the action is in fact the father of a minor child. The declaratory judgment does nothing more than identify the legal father to the child; other action would be taken to decide what type of legal responsibilities the individual would have to the child, according to the laws of the land.
The scope and use of declaratory judgments vary somewhat from one country to another. For this reason, the aid of professional legal assistance is necessary when attempting to deal with a situation involving suspected theft of intellectual property, a patent issue, or the establishment of paternity. Keeping in mind that the judgment does not in and of itself provide a remedy, it is possible to determine if the two parties are capable of working out a resolution based on the findings of the court, or if further legal action is required to permanently settle the issue.