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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.

Deciding court: The name of the court that issued the decision.

Appointed judge(s): The names of the judge(s) who heard the case.

Date of judgement: The date of that the judge's or judges' decision was released.

Citation: e.g. 2006 ABCA 302 -- A citation is a alphanumeric string assigned to each decision. Each decision has a unique citation, which can help make locating a decision easy. A citation can either be neutral or not. Neutral citations are assigned by the court, whereas a non-neutral citation is assigned by a legal publisher that has published the decision.

Names of counsel: The names of the lawyers representing the parties.

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.

  • Catchlines: Catchlines are phrases and key words separated by dashes that describe the legal issues as well as the facts of the case reported. They are usually located above the headnote, but sometimes they can also serve as the headnote.

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.