Skip to Main Content

Legal Research Manual

This edition of Legal Research Manual builds on many previous editions. While the manual is designed principally for use with the first year legal research classes, upper year law students will also find it a useful reference.

Anatomy of a Decision

Whether you are looking at a legal decision from a database or a case law reporter, it will typically consist of the following sections: 

Style of cause: e.g. R v Desautel -- the names of the parties to the legal dispute. In a civil case the plaintiff or "initiator" is named first; in criminal cases the "R" representing Rex or Regina for King or Queen (i.e. the State) comes first.

Preliminary information: Following the style of cause, preliminary information including the court name, the judge(s) who heard the case, and the date of the decision's release are given.

Catchlines: Catchlines are phrases and key words separated by dashes that describe the legal issues as well as the facts of the case reported.

Headnote: This is a short (or not so short, depending on the complexity of the case) summary of the facts, issues, and reasons for the decision rendered. Note that the headnote is not part of the decision proper -- it is written by editors of the law reporter and not by the court or judge.

Authorities referred to: The cases, statutes and secondary sources consulted or referred to in the decision are listed next. This provides a quick overview of sources consulted in the course of writing the judgment.

History of the case: If this is not the first hearing of the case, the prior history will be given.

Decision(s): The decisions or written reasons of the judge(s) who heard the case appear following all of the preliminary information.