Strong legal research skills are essential for succeeding at law school, allowing you to research cases, legislation, legal commentary and more for completing your assignments and preparing for exams. You will be taught legal research skills primarily in the first year of your degree. Below, we provide a brief guide on legal research.
There are two types of primary sources: cases and legislation.
Cases are legal proceedings (a dispute between two or more parties) that is to be resolved before a court. There are three main databases for finding cases:
The first two are paid databases but should be available free to students from your law school (you may need to access these databases from your university website). The Australian Legal Information Institute (AustLII) website is a joint project between UNSW and UTS Law, providing free access to cases.
On each of these databases, you can search for a case by: case name, jurisdiction, legislation cited or keywords discussed in the case. Once you find a case and click to open it, you will see the following information displayed: catchwords, digest (a short introduction about the case), cases considered by this case, legislation considered by this case, publications referring to this case, etc. On the AustLII website, you will have to click ‘NoteUp References’ on the right for this information to be displayed.
There are a few differences between the three databases. Westlaw AU has the Commonwealth Law Reports, while Lexis Advance does not, but has the Australian Law Reports. AustLII tends to have the most recent cases, but does not have all Law Reports available.
Legislation (also known as statutes or Acts) are laws created by Parliament. Commonwealth legislation can be found at www.legislation.gov.au while state legislation can be found on the corresponding state website (e.g. NSW legislation: www.legislation.nsw.gov.au).
The AustLII website can be used to look at both Commonwealth legislation and the legislation of the various Australian states/territories, saving you time from changing between websites.
Below are some of the common elements you will commonly find in each Act:
- A short title and a long title
- Preamble/Purpose – a preliminary statement explaining the objective of the Act
- Date of assent – date approved by Governor-General for Commonwealth Acts, or governor if state Acts
- Headings and sections – Acts are divided into sections and sub-sections, e.g. section 23, sub-section 1, paragraph a is written as s 23(1)(a)
- Definitions section
- Schedules or notes at the end
These are any other sources that are not cases or legislation.
Materials such as bills, Hansards (transcript of Parliamentary debates) and second reading speeches can be found on the Australian Parliament website (for Commonwealth Acts): www.aph.gov.au while state equivalents can be found on the state/territory Parliament website.
There are various databases to find journal articles that provide legal commentary:
- Westlaw AU – click ‘journals’ and search by key words, article title, cases cited, etc.
- Lexis Advance – click ‘search’ > ‘content type’ > ‘AU analytical materials’.
- AustLII Lawcite – find articles by ‘legislation considered’ or ‘cases considered’.
- Informit – choose the relevant databases (it’s a good idea to choose ‘business and law’, ‘arts and humanities’ and ‘social sciences’), then search.
- AGIS Plus and APAFT databases can be found on Informit.
Learning to cite quickly will come in handy for all those law assignments you will come across in law school. While there is no single citation standard in Australia, the most commonly used in Australia is the Australian Guide to Legal Citation.
The Fourth Edition of the AGLC was published in November 2018. You can order a copy from the Melbourne Law School website. A free PDF version of the AGLC is available on the website: AGLC Fourth Edition (PDF).
Coming in at over 300 pages, the AGLC can be a daunting document for first-year students. When you first begin law school, it’s suggested that you understand the general rules, as well as how to cite cases, legislation and journal articles.
Below are a few quick guides to legal citation to give you a brief overview of how to cite certain sources: