Legal Research Skills Guide
Legal research skills are an essential part of any practising lawyer's toolkit. If you intend to pursue law as a career you can expect to spend a good deal of your time doing legal research. Even if you are not thinking of becoming a solicitor or a barrister then law is by its very nature an information heavy discipline and the ability to do legal research well is a fundamental skill required by all law students.
In short, good legal research skills will enable you to pass your exams and to get a job.
About this resource
This resource helps you acquire the necessary legal research skills which will support you in your first year undergraduate work and beyond.
If you work through all the modules in this resource you should be able to:
- develop search strategies for legal problems
- confidently use a range of paper sources to find legal information
- confidently use a range of electronic sources to find legal information
- evaluate the information you find
- Developing search strategies
- Primary and secondary sources
- Finding primary sources
- Finding secondary sources
- Finding European materials
- Using web resources
PLANNING YOUR RESEARCH
Developing search strategies
Before you head off to the library, you need to consider the problem you have been given. It might be a problem question depicting an imaginary legal scenario, a fictional situation affecting ‘pretend’ clients or maybe a more discursive essay type question. For all of these you can use the following questions to help identify the types of information you will need.
- Does the question or problem require you to cover a broad subject area or a narrow one? You should be thinking about the search terms which seem to describe or encompass the research task you have been set.
- Can you identify keywords which define your research topic? For example, if your essay is about the formation of a contract then you might wish to think of offer, acceptance and contract as keywords. You could then construct an online catalogue or database search using these terms to find material to support your work. If you cannot think of subject terms which describe your research problem, are there relevant cases or statutes which you should to find out about?
- Does the question require you to find cases?
- Does the question require you to find statutes or Acts of Parliament?
- Does the question require you to find commentary on the law? If so you will probably need to use secondary sources.
- Have you been given a list of suggested reading to use or must you construct your own? If you don't have a reading list it might be useful to pop into your library ask the staff there to give you some help.
Try it yourself! Imagine that you have a tutorial to prepare for on the topic of Formation of Contract. Find a book, or part of book, which might help you to do this.
Primary and secondary sources of information
There are two main types of legal information sources available to you:
- Primary sources are the law itself, that is to say, statutes or Acts of Parliament, and law reports or cases.
- Secondary sources comment and critique the law, for example, books or articles in journals which discuss what went on in the law reports or the content or effect of a statute.
The importance of primary sources in law is one of the things which makes studying law very different from many other degree subjects. If, for example, you studied history at degree level, you would spend most of your research time looking at secondary sources — books and articles. The authors of these books and articles will have used primary sources, that is, actual historical documents, when they wrote them, but the history undergraduate may well never use such sources at all. Law is different. As a law student, you will need to use primary sources all the time, right from the start of your studies. You will also need to supplement primary materials with secondary sources which interpret and comment upon them.
Both primary and secondary materials may be available on the Internet, either as e-versions of printed material or as freestanding items only available online.
FINDING LEGAL INFORMATION
Finding primary sources
Primary sources are the law itself, that is to say, statutes or Acts of Parliament, and law reports or cases.
Case summaries or full reports?
To do the work you have in hand, do you need the full text of the case or will a summary or brief version giving only the minimum of facts and the decision suffice?
If you are preparing for a tutorial and you have little time and a long list of potential relevant cases to research, then maybe a case summary will have to do. If you are writing a long essay it is unlikely that a digest or summary of the case will give you the depth of information your tutors will expect.
Try it yourself! Find out what resources are available which give the full text of cases at your university.
Finding statutory material
As a law student, you will encounter references to Acts of Parliament or statutes and will need to find these. There are a number of possible sources. Some are paper-based and others exist only in electronic format. Some are available in both formats.
Original legislation or amended?
It is important to think carefully about the type of information you need before selecting your approach. In particular do you need:
- The original version of an Act with no repeals, changes or amendments shown?
- An up to date version of an Act showing all changes and any repeals?
Try it yourself! Find out what resources are available which give the full text of statutory material at your university.
Researching primary sources
Finding cases with electronic sources
Your institution will probably subscribe to one or all of these electronic resources. These sources can save you lots of time in tracking down case materials and also save on photocopying paper!
Scroll down to read about some of the most popular subscription based e-resources, providing both case summaries and full reports. Or click on a specific source to jump to that section.
Lawtel UK is a web-based database which provides summaries of case reports and, in many instances, links to the full text of reports.
Visit Lawtel UK's website.
LexisNexis Butterworths is a well established database covering legal information and news. Its coverage includes UK cases, in full text.
Westlaw UK is a wide ranging legal information database which includes UK cases, many in full text. The case coverage in Westlaw UK is useful since it links you straightaway to a lot of secondary interpretative material in the shape of journal articles about cases. Westlaw UK also gives useful summary or abstract information in relation to most modern cases.
Visit Westlaw UK's website.
Try it yourself! Find an electronic version of Donoghue v Stevenson. If your library has access to more than one electronic source try looking for the same case with different databases. Is the material you find presented differently?
Finding statutes with electronic sources
Scroll down to read about some of the electronic search tools giving access to statutes and statutory instruments. Or click on a specific source to jump to that section.
Quick guide: to finding statutes with electronic sources
I want to find…
Statutes by subject. Try:
Amendments and repeals of statutes and statutory instruments. Try:
Original unamended versions of statues. Try:
- OPSI Statutes (only available back to 1988)
The UK Statute Law Database is the official revised edition of the primary legislation of the United Kingdom. This site shows amendment and repeals of statutes and statutory instruments.
Visit the UK Statute Law Database website.
The OPSI Legislation site at the National Archives includes statutes from 1988 onwards. Use this if you need a post-1988 statute in its original form only: there are no amendments and no repeals.
Visit the OPSI Legislation website.
Westlaw UK contains the consolidated, that is to say fully updated, versions of full text statutes which reflect amendment and repeal. You can search by statute name, subject matter or even by particular section.
Visit Westlaw UK's website.
LexisNexis Butterworths also contains fully updated versions of full text statutes which reflect amendment and repeal. You can search by statute name, subject matter,or even by particular section.
Try it yourself! Find an up to date version of the Theft Act 1968 in an electronic source.
Finding cases with paper sources
Scroll down to read about some of the major paper-based search tools giving access to the law reports. Or click on a specific source to jump to that section.
Quick guide: to finding cases with paper sources
I want to find…
Cases on a particular subject. Try:
Case summaries from a case name. Try:
Case reports citations. Try:
Judicial history of a case. Try:
The Digest is a multi-volume work containing summaries or digests of cases. Its geographical coverage includes Europe and the Commonwealth. You can use it to find:
- cases on a particular subject
- summaries of named cases, and details of where to find the full reports.
Finding cases on a subject
To find cases on a particular subject, use the A–Z Subject Index. This gives volume numbers in heavy type and paragraph numbers of the case digests or summaries in lighter type.
Finding case summaries
If you know the name of the case you want, use the Consolidated Table of Cases, an alphabetical index of case names. This gives volume numbers but no paragraph references. To find these, you need to look up the case name in the alphabetical list of cases at the front of the relevant volume. This lists the correct paragraph reference numbers.
Current Law publications are another good way to find cases and are purchased by many university libraries, and even some public libraries.
Current Law Monthly Digest is a monthly publication containing digests or summaries of important cases and legislative change. Current Law Monthly Digest adopts a subject approach and has a subject index. An important thing to remember about the index is that it is cumulative, i.e. you only need to look in the most recent issue in order to ascertain the contents of all the Current Law Monthly Digests in that year.
Finding cases on a subject
To find cases on a particular subject, use the Index. This gives months and paragraph numbers to direct you to relevant cases.
Finding case reports
If you know the name of the case you want, use the Cumulative Table of Cases to find a summary, and citation details.
If you want to find the full report, use the Brief Case Digest.
Current Law Yearbooks are annual bound volumes of the year's Current Law Monthly Digests.
Current Law Case Citators comprise a series of hardback volumes covering case law from 1947 onwards, plus paperback volumes for the more recent years. The present year's Case Citator is included in the Current Law Monthly Digest. It can be used to:
- find full reports of named cases, especially useful if you do not know the year the case was reported in
- trace the judicial history of a case, that is to say, what has happened to the decision since it was made. Has it been followed in other cases or perhaps overruled? You can also trace the judicial history of cases prior to 1947 when they have featured as cases mentioned in more recent decisions.
Finding full case reports
If you know the name of the case you want, and you have an idea of the date of the case, you can select just the volume that covers that date. Otherwise you will need to check through all the volumes until you find what you are looking for. The cases are arranged alphabetically and following the case name you will see a list of all the places where you can find a full report.
Remember, you can use a guide to abbreviations to decipher the references if you do not know them.
Tracing judicial history
To trace what has become of the decision in a case and how it has affected later cases, use each of the Case Citators in turn depending on the date of the case, e.g. if the case is dated 1982 then you will start with the Citator Volume dated 1977–1997.
Look up the case alphabetically and concentrate on the information given on the right hand side of the page where you will see words such as, applied, considered, distinguished etc… The references after the words ‘applied, cited, considered’ give paragraph numbers in the relevant Current Law Yearbooks. The number before the forward stroke (/) shows you which yearbook to consult, the number after shows the paragraph you need.
Top tip: If you are not sure of the meanings of terms like ‘applied’ or ‘overruled’ you may want to consult Section 3.6.3 in Slapper & Kelly's English Legal System text to find out more about precedent within the hierarchy of the courts.
To bring the search right up to date, you can use the Cumulative Table of Cases in the most recent Current Law Monthly Digest.
Try it yourself! Find this case using the paper and electronic sources at your library: What is the name of the case reported at  4 All ER 889? How do the different methods compare?
Finding statutes with paper sources
Scroll down to read about some of the major paper-based search tools giving access to statutes and statutory instruments. Or click on a specific source to jump to that section.
Quick guide: to finding statutes with paper sources
I want to find…
Statutes by subject. Try:
Full text of statutes at the time of Royal Assent. Try:
Annotated full text of statutes
Full text of statutes since 1866
Public and General Acts are published by HMSO and give the text of the statutes as they were when they received Royal Assent. There are no annotations and there is no updating system to reflect amendment. Many public libraries and university libraries stock these.
Law Reports Statutes, seemingly a contradiction in terms, are published by the Incorporated Council of Law Reporting. They contain the full text of statutes from 1866 onwards. Like the printed Public and General Acts, they have no annotations and no method of updating.
Current Law Statutes Annotated contains the full text of statutes from 1947. These are annotated but have no updating mechanism. The annotations can be very useful if you are trying to trace the background to an Act. The fact that they do not update in any way may be a problem depending on your research task.
Halsbury's Statutes is a multi-volume work organised by subject. It contains the full text of Acts of Parliament as they were at the time the relevant volume was published. For example, if the statute was passed in 1970, amended in 1975 and is included in a volume of Halsbury's Statutes published in 1980 then the version published will incorporate the 1975 amendments and any other amendments made up to 1980.
If you know the title of the act you need, look at the alphabetical Statute Titles index in the Index Volume. The number in heavy type is the Volume number followed by a page number. Armed with this information you can consult the correct volume and find the text of the statute.
Checking for updates
Unfortunately, at any given time some of the volumes may be quite old and you will need to check in two different places to be sure that your information is up to date:
- the Cumulative supplement — trace your volume and page number
- the Noter up — again trace the volume number and page number.
Top tip: If you see ‘S’ in the index, it is a more recent Act and will be found in the current service binders rather than the main volumes. The Act must have been passed since the Halsbury's Statutes volume it belongs to was last published!
Try it yourself! Find a printed source of the original version of the Sexual Offences Act 1956. Find an up to date version of the Theft Act 1968 in a paper-based source.
Finding secondary sources
Secondary material helps you understand and interpret what you have found in the statutes and the law reports. Reading this type of material will ensure that you have a better understanding of the topics you are covering on your course and clever use of critical and interpretive material can make your written work well rounded and more individual and critical in its approach. If you can include ideas and arguments which maybe weren't featured in the teaching sessions you attended, your written work will become more discursive and you will be more likely to get higher marks.
Scroll down to read about the main sources of secondary material, or click on a source to jump directly to that section.
Let's suppose that you are getting ready for a tutorial and need to do some research for it. The topic is certainty of contract. First of all, you might look at the book you have been told to buy or read on your Recommended Reading List. If that is not sufficient you might want to see whether there are any other suitable books in your library. Use your university's library catalogue to help you.
It is important to remember that there are a number of different types of textbook. Those aimed at professional legal practitioners may be rather difficult to follow at first, although those published in loose leaf form will be kept up to date. Revision guides offer very simplified outlines of subject areas and can provide helpful skeleton outlines of unfamiliar topics, but should not by relied on solely.
Top tip: Whatever sort of textbook you use, make certain that it is the most recent edition. Law books go out of date very quickly and old editions can be misleading.
You can search the catalogue by using subject keywords. Sometimes you may need to search using a wider term, for example ‘contract’ rather than ‘certainty’, before checking your specific topic within the books themselves. Any library catalogue can only take you so far: you need to look up your keywords in the contents page or index to find out whether the book is suitable for your purpose.
Top tip: Find a book in your library which covers the topic of provocation. Give details of the book as if you were quoting it in a bibliography.
Using a legal encyclopaedia
There are many different types of encyclopaedic works which you can use to support your studies but the most commonly available sources of information on English and Welsh law is Halsbury's Laws of England.
Halsbury's Laws of England is a dedicated legal encyclopaedia. Some universities may have access to it in electronic format as well as paper. Take some time to get to know your way around this work since it is a guide to all areas of the law. It contains information about statutes, case law and common law, all organised in a subject-based approach.
In paper format, it is a multi-volume work with each volume covering a subject area or areas. You find your way around this vast source by using the General Index volumes. Look up ‘certainty of contract’ in the index. The volume number is given in heavy type, along with the paragraph number. Go to that section and you will find a short paragraph encapsulating the legal principles concerned with certainty of contract. At the foot of the paragraph, the notes give details of relevant cases. Often the notes will also give details of relevant legislation.
Unfortunately, the individual volumes are produced irregularly and some may be as much as 10 years old. When you consider how much legislation passes through Parliament each year, as well as the thousands of cases decided in the courts — is it a good idea to rely on law from a book that is 10 or more years old? Of course not. From the publisher's point of view it would be too expensive and wasteful to produce a new volume every time there was a change, however small, in the law. So you need to use the updating mechanism provided to ensure your research is up to date.
The Cumulative Supplement comes out once a year, in two volumes covering all of the main volumes. You must use the General Index to track the volume number and paragraph number that you found in the first instance. So choose the right volume of the Cumulative Supplement and your volume and paragraph reference. If you do not find anything listed for that paragraph reference number then there has been no change since that main volume was printed. The Cumulative Supplement, however, comes out only once a year and the law may have changed between its being published and your consulting it. So you also need to check the Noter up.
The Noter up is a regularly updated loose leaf service contained in a ring binder. The approach is the same as for the Cumulative Supplement. Again check the volume number and paragraph number which pinpoint your topic. Sometimes you will find very recent changes to the law noted here. As with the Cumulative Supplement, if you do not see anything listed for that paragraph reference number do not worry — it may be that the law in this case remains unchanged.
This multi-stage process may sound laborious but once you actually have a go yourself it will become much clearer.
Top tip: Halsbury's Laws of England is now also available via the web as part of the LexisNexis Butterworths online database. The online version is of course regularly updated.
Try it yourself! Where in Halsbury's Laws of England, would you find the section on criminal proceedings and the right to an interpreter? If you are using this resource in paper, are there any updates or changes to this section in the Cumulative Supplement and/or the Noter up?
You can check the meaning of uncommon words or phrases by using a specialised law dictionary, such as Mozley and Whiteley's Law Dictionary.
Law.com's online dictionary is also useful but, coming from the US, you should use it with caution.
For terms relating to the English Legal System you can also use the Slapper & Kelly online glossary.
Try it yourself! Use a legal dictionary to find out what the following terms mean:
- implied consent
- mens rea
- obiter dicta
Finding journal articles
Journal and magazine articles can be a useful way of enhancing your knowledge of a topic. These are published regularly and so are often more up to date than books, containing more specialised articles. Most published articles are peer reviewed which means that, even though they have been written by well-qualified academics, they are ‘quality controlled’ by other academics before being included in particular journals.
Some of the best ways to find articles is to use the articles approach on Westlaw UK on the web or to look in the relevant file on LexisNexis Butterworths. Lawtel UK is another good source but will lead only to abstracts or summaries of the articles. If your university does not have access to these online resources then you could try to find material using Current Law or the Articles Index in Halsbury's Laws of England. You may need to enlist the help of your subject librarian the first time you try to do this.
Top tip: Not all legal journals are yet electronic. Have a look in your library to see the range of hard copy periodicals which are available. Ask library staff to help you locate the relevant section.
Try it yourself! Using paper or electronic resources find the article by William Wilson published in Crim. L.R. 2006, Jun, 471-485. What is its title?
Finding European materials
The best source for finding cases and legislative material relating to EC law is the free Eur-Lex website, part of the European Union's Europa website giving full access to case material and consolidated legislative material.
You can also use Westlaw UK and LexisNexis Butterworths to find European legal material but often it is best to go directly to Eur-Lex if you are looking for primary materials because of the tremendous frequency of updating done on the official Europa website.
If you are looking for journal articles on EC law then it is best to use the sources detailed in the finding journal articles section.
Using web resources
You will probably find that your university library or Law school website recommends using certain web-based resources. Using the web to find material is fine and there is a wealth of legal information available free of charge. The difficulty is identifying good quality material and being able to find it quickly and efficiently. Anyone can put material on the web so you do need to be very careful to check whether your sources are up to date, correct and valid.
Evaluating online material
Evaluating the material you find is crucial. Sites like the Intute Law Gateway will get you used to using and finding material on the web for your law studies. You can also ask yourself:
- Who is providing the information?
- The Government? A Non-Governmental Organisation? A legal firm?
- Are they a reliable source of this information? Is the site you are using bias free? Does it belong to a pressure group? Are the opinions put forward within it likely to be objective?
- Why is the information provided? To inform? To sell? To promote a point of view?
- When was it last updated? Try looking for a date on the page, or checking for a recent piece of legislation that you know about.
Alternatively you can use links from two well known, and highly recommended, sites which have supported lawyers for many years: Delia Venables' Legal Resources in the UK and Ireland, which includes a section specifically for students, and Infolaw.
Quick guide: to online databases
I want to find…
- Westlaw UK
- LexisNexis Butterworths
- Lawtel UK
Information about legislation. Try:
- Westlaw UK: for full text consolidated statutes and statutory instruments
- LexisNexis Butterworths: for full text consolidated statutes and statutory instruments
- Lawtel UK: to find out if legislation is currently in force
- UK statute law database: gives access to updated versions of statutory material
European information. Try:
- Westlaw UK: for primary source material and journals for commentary and analysis of European law
- LexisNexis: for primary source material and journals and newspapers
- Eur-Lex for treaties, legislation and cases. Also useful for finding updates to legislation
Articles in journals. Try:
- Westlaw UK: the articles approach gives you references to articles and many full text journals
- LexisNexis Butterworths: many full text journals and newspapers
Information about recent developments in the law. Try:
- Westlaw UK: use the current awareness options
- LexisNexis Butterworths: look in the newspapers and in the journals
- Lawtel UK: use the current awareness options
Try it yourself! Find out how to access all the electronic resources relevant to law in your library. Do you need special log in details? Can you access them off campus?
Understanding abbreviations and references
Baffled by ALL ER and other legal abbreviations? Law reports and journals are usually referred to in the shorthand of legal citations and can be difficult to decipher but there are useful guides to help you unravel them.
A good printed resource is Donald Raistrick's Index to Legal Citations and Abbreviations. Unfortunately, its high price means you are only likely to consult it in your library.
Online, you can use the free Cardiff Index to Legal Abbreviations.
Lawbore also offers an informative video guide.
Referencing law reports
For law reports the basic pattern of an abbreviation is year, volume number, abbreviation for law reports series and then page number. For example:  1 AC 1 or  1 All ER 1.
Years are given in square brackets [ ] if they are crucial to finding the report and rounded ones ( ) if the volume number alone will enable you to find the report you need, e.g., (1999) 99 Cr. App. R. 142.
There is an excellent explanation of legal referencing at Citing the law. You can also find out more about reading, understanding and citing cases in our Using cases skills guide
Top tip: Some institutions use Harvard, APA or the numerical method of referencing. Make sure you know what system your institution uses before you start referencing.
Try it yourself! Does your university Library hold a set of law reports known by the abbreviation Crim App R? What does this stand for and where are the reports kept in your library?
TOP 10 TIPS FOR RESEARCH SUCCESS
- Use a legal dictionary to find to what unfamiliar new terms mean.
- Use a legal encyclopaedia to help you get an overview of a new topic.
- Understand the citation you have been given. Do you know what the abbreviations mean and the numbers which surround them?
- Make sure that you don't just read the headnote of the case you have been told to read: this will only give you the very briefest of outlines.
- Make sure that you are using the current version of the statute when this is necessary. Statutes change all the time and you will most likely need to use the version which reflects all amendments and repeals.
- Find some secondary material which helps you to understand the primary sources you have been asked to read. The more you read the more you will be able to set what you have learnt into context.
- Keep a note of the sources you use so that you can easily compile your bibliography when handing in written work.
- Make sure that you know what referencing system your Law School uses and you use it properly. OSCOLA is one of the most commonly used systems.
- Don't panic and give yourself lots of time to find the material you need.
- Become familiar with your law library, its systems and the staff there who are waiting to help you.
Cardiff Index to Legal Abbreviations
Citing the Law using OSCOLA
Internet for Lawyers tutorial
Intute Law Gateway
Lawbore guide to Understanding Legal Abbreviations
Law Society research guides
Legal Resources in the UK and Ireland
UK Statute Law Database
TRY IT YOURSELF ANSWERS
R v Ahluwahlia
Finding statutes with paper sources
Consult the Law Reports Statutes series, 1956, page 807
Consult the appropriate volume of Halsbury's Statutes and check in the Cumulative Supplement and the Noter up for any updates.
Using Halsbury's Laws of England
Vol. 8(2), para 147. If using the paper version, check for updates or changes in the Cumulative Supplement and the Noter Up.
Using legal dictionaries
Defamation — the act of making untrue statements about another which damages his/her reputation.
Hearsay — second-hand evidence, the witness is providing information that others have said to him/her.
Implied consent — consent that has not been directly expressed but where a reasonable person would believe it has been given.
Mens rea — a guilty mind or intent.
Obiter dicta — an incidental or passing remark, an opinion voiced by a judge that is not binding as precedent.
Sequestration — the act of a judge issuing an order that the jury or a witness be kept apart from outside contacts.
Their full title is Criminal Appeal Reports and they are most likely to be shelved in the Law Reports section under C.
Finding journal articles
The title of the article is ‘The structure of criminal homicide’.