Throughout law school, you will be looking at hundreds of cases through your readings and your own research. Considering how many pages each case can be, it is important that you learn how to sift out the important details and make case summaries for quick revision later on.
How to read a case
You should start by reading the ‘case digest’ at the beginning which gives a brief overview of the details of the case (this is available in most databases). You should then move on to the first few paragraphs, which usually provide more details about what the case is about.
If the case is a particularly long one, it may be useful to skip to the end of the case and read the case outcome, so you know where the case is headed. Next, do a read-through of the rest of the case (i.e. the middle parts that you missed). As you are reading the case, take note of the case’s legal issues (questions the court has to answer to decide the case) and the judges’ legal reasoning.
- Plaintiff – the party that has commenced the legal proceedings against the other party.
- Defendant – the party being sued or accused in the court.
- Appeal – when one of the parties is not satisfied with a court’s decision, they may choose to appeal the decision. A higher court then reviews the decision and may decide to overturn the decision.
- Appellant – a party, having lost a case, who decides to appeal the court decision.
- Respondent – the opposing party in an appeal.
- Civil cases – when one party sues another for failure to carry out a legal duty. E.g. breach of contract, property disputes and compensation for personal injury.
- Criminal cases – when a person is charged with a crime, it is the state that begins the legal proceedings against the individual. The case citation is R v [accused], where the R stands for ‘regina’ (queen) or ‘rex’ (king), who represent the state. E.g. cases of murder, assault and theft.
Writing a Case Brief
A case brief is a summary of the main details of the case, which are useful for exam revision. Your case brief should include:
Write down the full case citation (including the parties, year, law report series) and the court in which the case was heard.
These are the facts that were relevant to the final court decision. Exclude any details that do not have much bearing on the case. Also note down any prior court proceedings (what happened in the lower courts).
On what basis are the plaintiffs or respondents basing their case?
What questions must the court answer to decide the case?
Which party won the case?
Outline the string of legal reasoning that the judge or judges used to reach their decision. Take note of any precedents they used from other cases. What was the ratio decidendi (the legal reason that ultimately decided the case)? Was there any obiter dicta (interesting comments made by the judge but not necessary for outcome of the case; you may exclude this from your case brief).