Finding UK Case-Law

Introduction

Cases are the decisions of the law courts and are known as 'judge-made' law. Thousands of cases are heard each year in England and Wales and only a fraction are "reported" i.e. published. As a rules only those cases that develop the law, its application or interpretation are included which means all Supreme Court cases are published, but only a small proportion from the Court Of Appeal, High Court and specialist courts. You may find transcripts of some 'unreported' cases but the remainder are not recorded at all.

Practically all reported case-law and some unreported case-law is available online but understanding how the printed reports are organised can help to understand the system of law reporting. There is no official series of law reports but the series known collectively as 'The Law Reports' which are published by the Incorporated Council of Law Reporting are considered as 'semi-official' because these reports are approved by judges. They are the preferred report to use in court,  contain arguments by counsel and are regarded as the most 'authoritative' texts. Other reports are published by commercial publishers such as Lexis/Butterworths or Sweet an Maxwell and these general and specialist (or topic based) series.

Many cases are reported in more than one series of reports; if you have a reading-list reference to, for example, the Weekly law reports but are unable to find the volume you require, you can often find other sources which will provide an identical report. There are two points to watch out for:

(a) Not all reports of cases give the full text of the judgement: those in, for example, the Times, the Solicitors' journal or the New law journal are merely summaries.

(b) If a case has been heard in more than one court, say in the High Court and then in the Court of Appeal, the various stages of the action may be reported in different series of reports, or in different volumes of the same series. Make sure that you have found the one that you really want.

Interpreting Case Citations

Most citations to case reports (and also many law journals) are given in abbreviated form. There are two main systems of case citations.

Citations for a print series of Law reports

These citations generally look as follows:

a. Vandervell v IRC [1967] 2 AC 291

b. R v Miller [1954] 2 QB 282

c. Is interpreted as the names of the parties concerned (Vandervell v IRC), the year the case was reported (1967), volume number (2), the abbreviated title of the law report series (AC = Appeal Cases), and page number (291).

b. Is interpreted as the names of the parties concerned (R v Miller - all criminal cases in the UK are 'The Queen' or Regina versus the defendant), the year the case was reported (1954), the volume number (2), the abbreviated title of the law report series (QB=Queens Bench), and the page number (282).

Neutral Citations

These were introduced in 2001 and do not refer to any one series of law reports but are aimed at making it easier to locate judgements on the internet. The term 'neutral' is intended to show that it is independent of any published report ('media neutral'). They look as follows:

Attia v British Gas [1987] EWCA Civ 8

This is interpreted as party (or case) names (Attia v British Gas), year of judgement (1987), abbreviation of the court where the case was heard (EWCA Civ = England and Wales Court of Appeal, Civil Division) and a unique case number (8).

The neutral citation format does not use page numbers as internet pages do not have page numbers. Neutral citations instead use a paragraph number in square brackets as so:

Attia v British Gas [1987] EWCA 8 at [2]

To find out what the abbreviations mean there are two major reference tools:

Cardiff Index to Legal Abbreviations

Raistrick, D Index to Legal Citations and Abbreviations. 3rd ed. 2008. Law Ref. K 51

Finding Cases Using Electronic Resources

Most case-law is available in electronic format either on a subscription service such as Lexis Library, Westlaw or LawTel or more recent cases are available via free websites such as BIALLI & high profile cases on the Judiciary website.

Finding cases by citation

Both Lexis Library and Westlaw provide the facility to search via citation just click on Cases and use the Find by citation field and type in the citation (you do not need square brackets or capitalisation).

Finding cases by party names

Westlaw - click on Cases and search using the Party Names field.
Lexis Library - click on Cases and search by the Case Name field.

Tip: if you are unsure of the spelling of the names you can use a wildcard character to replace one or two letters you are unsure of e.g. bernst**n will find berntein and bernstien.

Finding cases by topic

Westlaw - click on Cases and choose Advanced search and either enter your terms in the Subject/Keyword field or choose terms from the List of Terms
Lexis Library - click on Cases and enter your keywords in the Subject Terms field.

Tip: You can expand or reduce your results by using connectors, proximity searching or phrase searching.

Finding Cases Using Printed Sources

The Library has a large collection of printed law reports, some of the main series are listed below and other more specialised series can be found by searching the library catalogue by periodical title using the title of the series or abbreviation. Alternatively if you are unsure of the title you can use the keyword search using the topic/subject and the words 'Law reports'.

The Law Reports Series:
  • The Law Reports: Appeal Cases (AC) KD 275.4
  • The Law Reports: Queens (Kings) Bench Division (KB or QB) KD 277.7
  • The Law Reports: Chancery Division (Ch or Ch.D) KD 276.3
  • The Law Reports: Family Division (Fam.) KD 279.3 (prior to 1971 this series was known as (The Law Reports: Probate Division (PD))
  • Industrial Cases Reports KD 279.4
Other general series:

All England Law Reports (ALLER) KD 288.A1

Weekly Law Reports (WLR) KD 282

A further explanation of the main series of printed law reports can be found in the English Law Guide.

Finding Older Cases (Prior to 1865)

Since 1865 the Incorporated Council of Law Reporting has produced series of law reports in a standardised form. Prior to 1865 (between the mid-sixteenth and mid-nineteenth centuries) law reports were usually (though not invariably) known by the name of the reporter(s) or compiler(s) who produced them, e.g. Coke's reports, Durnford and East's reports. For this reason they are sometimes referred to as "nominate reports". The best source for pre-1865 English law reports is a modern reprint:

ENGLISH REPORTS. 178 vols. KD 270.E6 or HeinOnline and Lexis Library

This series contains the text of all the major series of nominate reports. The volume a particular series of "nominate reports" may be located in can be in Raistrick, D. Index to legal citations and abbreviations. 1993. Law Ref. K 51). In addition, a two-volume index (vols. 177-178) lists cases in alphabetical order.

Alternatively you can search via the case name or citation using the subscription service HeinOnline or Westlaw (see link above).

Official transcripts

Official transcripts provide the full text of the judgment of a case but do not contain any of the other information you may find in a law report (such as the catchwords or headnotes). A quick way of identifying transcripts is that they usually only have a neutral citation.

You will often find citations to official transcripts on your reading lists as many academics read judgments as soon as they are handed down, which is often before any printed report is published.

Transcripts are generally freely available on the web and can be found on sites mentioned above as well as pn Westlaw, Lexis & Lawtel.

Websites and Other Sources of Case-Law

Recommended siteBritish and Irish Legal Information Institute (BAILLI) 

Enter some of the words from the party names in the Search box and click on Search.  Or choose the Case Law search option. Or browse using the A-Z index or year.

BAILLI Open Law Project

This project aims to identify and add to BAILII a limited number of judgments that are important in the core teaching areas of law. The Open Law Project covers not only recent cases but also older judgements that are important but not necessarily freely available on the web. It covers the following subjects: Constitutional Law; Contract Law; Criminal Law; Criminal Law (Scotland); Employment Law; English Legal System; Family Law; Family Law (Scotland); Human Rights (ECHR); Immigration and Asylum; Land Law (Northern Ireland); Northern Ireland Legal System; Property Law; Tax Law; Tort Law; and Trust Law.

Judiciary of England & Wales / Tribunals Judiciary

Includes judgements of high profile cases from 2009 onwards & also includes court guides and notices, practice directions etc.

House of Lords Judgements

A very useful archive site for finding HL cases quickly if you know the date, the site lists HTML versions of all House of Lords judgments delivered from 14 November 1996 to 30 July 2009.

United Kingdom Supreme Court

The Supreme Court is the final court of appeal in the UK for civil cases. It hears appeals in criminal cases from England, Wales and Northern Ireland. It hears cases of the greatest public or constitutional importance affecting the whole population.

LawTel

Daily updated index of unreported cases, with summaries back 20 years; index of articles from major UK legal publications; legislation and case citator; statute summaries and legislation tracking service (commencement and repeals, Bills and Command Papers) and jobs.

Old Bailey Online

Contains historical and legal background to trials at the Old Bailey as well as the accounts of criminal trials held at London's central criminal court from 1674 to 1913



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