Something interesting has happened in legal education. When I started my degree back in the mid-1990s, one of the first things covered was how to find a case in published law reports. Somewhere along the line this seems to have dropped off the curriculum in favour of wholesale use of online databases like Austlii. This is a shame, because while electronic resources are very convenient, not everything has been digitised. British case law, in particular, is gathered at Bailii but includes old cases only in a very scrappy manner. In addition, online cases very seldom include a headnote – the case summary that is a gift to time-poor lawyers who need to get a handle on something quickly. If you’ve never seen a headnote, take a look at this website, for which I wrote dozens of them.
Because this has become a bit of a gap in the legal skill set, I ran a quick course for my colleagues Amila, Sarah and Tremayne today up at the Supreme Court Library. This post is mainly the notes of that course: I thought they might be useful for other lawyers out there.
This note covers the two most commonly used Anglo-Australian systems of case citation. American, Canadian and South African cases use somewhat different systems, and there’s a special system for English cases from before 1873.
The first system we’ll talk about tends to be preferred by Australian report series. A case citation will look like this –
Australian Knitting Mills Ltd v Grant (1933) 50 CLR 387
The key thing is that if the year is written in round brackets, then you don’t need to know it: it’s there only to tell you the year the case was decided. The details you really need to know are are –
50 The volume in of the series of law reports
CLR The series of law reports. In this case, the Commonwealth Law Reports, covering the reports of the High Court of Australia and (occasionally in the past) Privy Council appeals from Australia.
387 The page of the reports where the report begins.
The case referred to, incidentally, is sometimes called the Woolen Underwear Case.
The second system tends to be used for British cases. It looks like this –
McLoughlin v O’Brian  1 AC 410
If the year is in square brackets, you need to know it. The key details are –
 The year the case was reported. This will be how the volume of cases is identified.
1 If there were several volumes of that report series that year, this is the number of the volume.
AC The series of law reports. AC stands for Appeals Cases and covers reports of the House of Lords (now the UK Supreme Court) and Privy Council.
410 The page on which the report starts
Common series of law reports
Some of the most common series of reports for Australian lawyers are –
AC Appeals Cases. House of Lords (now the UK Supreme Court) and Privy Council
ALR Australian Law Reports. High Court and other cases mainly concerning Federal law.
CLR Commonwealth Law Reports. High Court of Australia and (occasionally formerly) the Privy Council
FLR Federal Law Reports. Self explanatory.
QB Queen’s Bench. Reports of the English Court of Appeal. (KB – King’s Bench – before 1952)
SASR South Australian State Reports
TLR Times Law Reports. A bit of a grab bag of old cases reported over the years by the Times of London.
VR Victorian Reports. Supreme Court and Court of Appeal. Previously VLR (Victorian Law Reports)
WLR Weekly Law Reports. Decisions of English courts at all levels
All ER All England Reports. Decisions of English courts at all levels
If you’re training younger staff, you might like to set them the task of finding cases within a time limit and sharing a photograph of the first page of the judgment. This list used in this exercise was
- Duke of Wellington Gold Mining Company NL v Armstrong (1906) 3 CLR 1028
- Hill v Chief Constable of West Yorkshire  AC 53
- Milirrpum v Nabalco Pty Ltd (1971) 17 FLR 141
- National & General Insurance Co Limited v Chick (1984) 2 NSWLR 86
- R v Pittwood  TLR 37
- R v Russell  VLR 59
- R v Smith  2 QB 35
- The Winkfield  P 42
I was a little bit surprised by how competitive my colleagues were over this!
If you’re planning to run this exercise, it takes about an hour. It should count for one CPD unit (Professional Skills).