Finding Case Law


by Katie Tribe

One of the most common requests I receive as a legal reference librarian is for assistance in finding case law. Most individuals approach me after a number of keyword searches in the usual databases retrieve no results, or way too many. While electronic databases are amazing tools for finding case law and other related materials, in many cases a basic keyword search is the last method you should try. Here are a few recommendations for resources you might want to check out before you drive yourself crazy with search terms and their synonyms. As always, your CCLA Library staff is available to help you find and use the following resources. Just get in touch with us!

Case Digests and Quantums

Case digests and quantums organize noteworthy case law by topic, or area of law. They might address a number of topics and arrange them in alphabetical order, or deal with only one specific subject. For example, if you were looking to locate the leading cases on defamation, you might look up the term “defamation” in a set of digests under the letter D, or consult a defamation quantum. Once you’ve located your topic, you’ll find discussion and summaries of the leading cases in that area of law.

The CCLA Library has a number of these products in both print and electronic format. I’ve highlighted a few below:

The Canadian Encyclopedic Digest (CED)

The CCLA Library currently has a full set of the Canadian Encyclopedic Digests available in print, and plans to make an electronic version available on our computers very shortly. This large set of green binders is extremely easy to use, with topics listed in alphabetical order on the spines of each volume. Don’t let the appearance of the binders fool you; they look old because they are well loved, not because they are out of date. The CED is a loose leaf resource and is updated regularly. Find the large set of green binders in the Reference section, which is in the main part of the library, right next to the reading tables.

Quicklaw’s Canada Digest and Topical Quantums

If you click on Quicklaw’s “Court Cases” tab, you’ll notice a number of links on the left hand side of the page. These include the Canada Digest, along with a number of topical quantums, covering topics such as child and spousal support, personal injury, and sentencing, among many others. Clicking any of these links will take you directly to the resource, where you can browse through lists of topics (simply click the + signs to expand the list), or perform a search producing case summaries. One of the great benefits of electronic digests and quantums is that nearly all the case summaries include hyperlinks to the full text of the case.

Print Digests and Quantums

The library has a large number of print quantums and digests covering specific subjects. These materials, which look just like textbooks, are spread throughout the library in their respective subject areas. You’ll find family law quantums with the rest of the family law books, and so forth. The next time you are looking for case law, try browsing the shelf in your subject area. You’ll likely find a print quantum or digest addressing your topic. A reminder that the best place to start in any print resource is your Table of Contents and Index.

Using Legislation

It is extremely helpful to determine what legislation is applicable to the case law you are searching for. Once you know what sections are relevant to you, you can use them to find case law and commentary.

A great way to do this is by locating an annotated version of the legislation. An annotated act, for example, includes helpful commentary after each section, usually offering discussions of leading case law. The CCLA Library has a large amount of annotated legislation available in print. Most of our recent and popular volumes are located in the library’s Reference section, next to the reading tables. A few other volumes are located in our Texts section. Using this method may offer a simple starting point, or provide you with what you need without hours of research.

Electronic databases, such as Quicklaw and Westlaw eCarswell, also have excellent note-up features for legislation. Locate the relevant section and note it up to find cases that considered, referred to, or cited the section. Browse through the cases, or search for keywords within them to see if any are relevant to your issue. Noting up your legislation first is a great way to narrow your electronic search results before you start brainstorming search terms.

Good Old Textbooks

Many people overlook print textbooks and loose leaf materials when searching for case law. Often, the easiest way to find useful cases on a topic is by browsing a chapter in an established reference book. Most texts offer useful case citations and commentary; just follow up on those footnotes and check the fine print.

Use Electronic Databases Effectively

Set aside some time for training on electronic databases; if your current searching abilities are limited to keyword searches, there is plenty of room for growth. Products like Quicklaw and Westlaw eCarswell are extremely powerful and efficient tools when used to their full potential. Attend one of the training sessions in the CCLA Library (I can vouch for the sessions; I still learn something new each time I attend, despite using the product every day), stop by and ask us some questions, or book an appointment with Jen or I to walk you through a database. We’re always happy to help. If your searches are always resulting in 50 cases or more, or you’re not sure how to use any of the tools in the databases, we’re pretty sure we can share something useful with you.

These are just a few resources off the top of my head – I’ll post more as I think of them! As you can see, there are many places to start your search for case law before you resort to the search box. Be sure to contact myself or another library staff member if you’d like further details and information on any of the above resources.

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