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How do I Research Recent Case Law?

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  • Written By: C. Mitchell
  • Edited By: John Allen
  • Last Modified Date: 12 October 2017
  • Copyright Protected:
    2003-2017
    Conjecture Corporation
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There are two main ways to approach case law research: first is traditional research in printed volumes, usually in a law library; second is online research through a variety of case law database programs. These processes will identify recent as well as antiquated case law, and can be narrowed by date to yield only relevant results. It usually takes a bit of time for decided cases to be recorded and published, however, even to online platforms. Depending on how recent the targeted cases are, a bit more effort may be involved to ensure that research is as up-to-date as possible. Most of the time, this involves monitoring court dockets and contacting court clerks, as well as routinely checking online case databases.

Cases are decided and published every day, in every country of the world. Together, these opinions make up the always-changing body of case law. “Case law” is a common law term for a collection of judicial opinions that interpret and apply the governing statutory law. Almost all case law is published in jurisdiction-specific reports, often referred to as reporters.

Reporters are a good place to begin conducting research on recent case law, as they are organized by date and are comprehensive. Law libraries, law schools, and many courts have legal reporters available for public use. An appointment may be required in some places, while other facilities are open to anyone during normal business hours.

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If you are looking for recent case law from a specific region, start with that region’s reporter. Most cases are separated by geographic region, court circuit, or court type, depending on how big the originating legal system is. For example, most case law from the UK is published in court-specific volumes that encompass all national law, whereas case law from the United States is broken into reporters relevant to region: Pacific, Southern, Atlantic, and so on. Most of the time, reporters include every case that was decided between given dates, reported chronologically. Almost all reporters have active indices, as well, which enable researchers to narrow down recent case law by certain keywords, parties, or governing laws.

The vast majority of case law is also published online, and usually appears on the Internet before it is published in bound volumes. Many courts will publish case law to their own websites, and all decided cases are uploaded into a centralized case management database program shortly after they are released. Opinions can also usually be obtained by visiting the courthouse, or requesting a copy of recent decisions from the court clerk. Unless you know the court that is publishing the recent case law you seek, periodically checking each court’s website or public database for updates can be an incredibly time-consuming endeavor.

Several online legal research tools exist to help legal researchers locate court information from a variety of jurisdictions simultaneously. These tools range from simple online case depositories to services offering algorithmic searches, case summaries, precedent indicators, and other research tools. Case summaries are short paragraph recaps of the main points of a case, usually created by attorneys who work for the online service provider. The summaries are designed as an added benefit to online service, enabling researchers to save time by reading a summary of a case before deciding if they want or need to read the case in its entirety.

Most of the comprehensive online services are subscription based, and usually charge either a flat fee for a month or year of access, or a fee assessed on a per-search basis. Free tools also exist to deliver case law online, but the research and search options are usually limited. Conducting a search for case summary material, for instance, is usually not offered for free, and the comprehensiveness of some online services can be in doubt. It is usually a good idea to check a few free online services before completing recent case law research, just to be sure that you have seen a complete view of the cases out there. Cross-checking results in bound publications is also usually recommended.

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