Doing case law research involves using “legal digests,” reference books that have a uniform system of “keywords,” legal topics or phrases that list court decisions involving that keyword. The cases listed in the digest can be looked up in “case reporters,” collections of appeals court decisions organized in volumes by state and region. The cases in the reporters will cite other cases dealing with the same topic as the authority for their decisions. Similar research can be done on the Internet but with less access to court decisions.
In the US and common law countries, basic case law research is the same. Legal digests are organized by area of the law, such as criminal law, contracts, or negligence. Under each area of the law are different broad categories like trials or appeals. Within those categories are specific topics. For instance, “right to counsel” can be found under the broader category of “criminal trials.”
The lists of cases will indicate how to find each case. As an example, In the Matter of Jane Doe, 111 Ill. 221, 112 N.E. 112 (2001), indicates that the case is an Illinois decision from 2001 found in volume 111 of the Illinois Reports at page 221. The second citation refers to the Northeastern Reporter, a regional reporter publishing decisions of the states within that region. Each case that In the Matter of Jane Doe relies on for its decision is cited in this same manner, and each collection of state reporters will be organized in the same way.
Opinions, which are a court’s ruling in a case, begin with the case caption, which lists the parties, the case number, and the court that made the decision. There is also a brief summary of the case followed by “headnotes,” which contain the keywords and a short description of the legal principal associated with the keyword. The text of the opinion recites the facts relevant to deciding the case. The court then applies the law to the facts and renders a decision, its “holding,” on the questions involved.
Doing case law research on the Internet is similar. Using specific keywords or phrases can yield valuable information about specific court cases and legal principles. However, the results will differ from book searches as to the number of opinions that can be found. Law schools and legal advocacy organizations often have web pages devoted to particular legal issues. These sites sometimes contain a summary of the facts of a case, the legal issues involved, and comparisons to other court decisions.
For example, the case law research term “the right to counsel” will lead to web sites addressing this issue. Some of them are hosted by law schools and legal organizations and contain specific case histories, including the facts and the courts’ reasoning. Sometimes these sites will contain links to the full text of major court opinions on a topic. These cases will in turn cite and sometimes explain other cases.