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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.

Stage 2: Initial Research

1.  Start with a good book on the topic.
2.  Find a relevant article.
3.  Consult a general encyclopedia like the Canadian Encyclopedic Digest (CED).
4.  Browse a subscription database.


Sometimes all you know are the facts of your legal problem. You have no idea what the legal issue is, and you may not even know what the legal subject or topic is. When doing initial research, you are trying to conduct a broad overview of the relevant sources in order to come to an understanding of the issues and to note key cases and statutes.

1. Start with a good book on the topic

Browsing through relevant legal texts is still the best starting point. This will logically set out the issues, provide an analytical framework, and discuss legislation and leading cases.

Try to find a Canadian text that analyzes your topic. Recent editions of "core" legal texts are located in the Reserve Collection which is open for browsing. Check for loose-leaf services and annotated codes which consolidate relevant legislation and may provide commentary or recent case law. You should always do a search of the library catalogue at this stage.

2. Find a relevant article

Finding an article written specifically on your topic is a convenient short cut to legal research. This research step involves searching both:

  • indexes to law review and journal articles and
  • full text databases of law review and journal articles.

(1) Indexes to Law Review Articles

Comprehensive Canadian research requires consultation of one of the Canadian indexes. The Index to Legal Periodicals and LegalTrac only have selective coverage of Canadian law journal articles but should definitely be consulted if you want to expand your research beyond Canadian material.  See the chapter on Secondary Sources for more information about journal indexes.

(2) Full Text Law Review Articles

In addition to indexes of law review articles, the commercial online database vendors (Lexis Advance Quicklaw and WestlawNext Canada) provide the full text of law reviews online.

When searching full text articles, use various search strategies to limit the number of irrelevant hits:

  • use proximity connectors (i.e. asking for your words to be in the same paragraph or within so many words of each other )
  • limit the search to just the title field

Although there is duplication between LexisNexis Quicklaw and WestlawNext Canada law review databases, search both of them since the overlap is not 100%, and you will quite likely pull up additional articles.

The internet does contain some full text law reviews, but generally coverage is very incomplete.

3. Consult a general encyclopedia like the Canadian Encyclopedic Digest (CED) or Halsbury's Laws of Canada

If you need a very general overview, or if you cannot find any discussion of your topic in a textbook, try using the current edition of the CED or Halsbury's Laws of Canada. These provide brief overviews of most areas of law, including some areas where there is not much else written (e.g. actions against the Crown, cemetaries, aviation law, etc.). They give broad, general treatment but will identify the issues and refer to leading cases and statutes.

The CED is available in print (in the Reference section) or on WestlawNext Canada. Halsbury's Laws of Canada is available in print (in the Reference section) or on Lexis Advance Quicklaw.

4. Browse a Legal Database

Check whether there is a database for the particular subject you are researching. Legal databases often integrate commentary from textbooks, legislation, and case law. Using the table of contents or indexes provided by the various sources, one can browse and find commentary with direct links to legislation and cases. Lederman Law Library provides a list of current database subscriptions organized by topic and jurisdiction. WestlawNext Canada and Lexis Advance Quicklaw also contain sources for various areas of law.