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How to trace legal cases

Law Reports are one of the basic or primary sources of English law (along with Legislation created by Parliament).

They are the full text of a judgment, including statement of facts and judicial reasoning made by judges in a court case and make up what is termed 'common law' or 'case law'.

The structure of the UK court system (from JustCite)
  • Supreme Court (formerly the House of Lords) and the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council
    • Court of Appeal
      • High Court - Queens Bench; Family Division and Chancery Division
        • Crown Court and County Courts
          • Magistrates’ Courts and the Tribunals Service

For more information on the structure of the UK Court system go to this page from JustCite.

The vast majority of cases heard in court are not actually reported. This means that they never end up in a published official law report. To be reported, a case would have to raise a point of legal significance or have been heard in the higher level courts e.g. The Supreme Court (previously The House of Lords) or Court of Appeal.

Post 1865 cases

In 1865 the Incorporated Council of Law Reporting (ICLR) was established. The Nominate Reports (see pre-1865 cases below) ceased and were replaced by the Official Law Reports published by the ICLR. This is a single series of reports covering all major courts. These are the most authoritative version of a case.

The current run of Law Reports is split into 4 series depending on the court they were heard in:

  • Appeal Cases (AC) - contains cases heard in the Supreme Court and Privy Council. It does not contain Court of Appeal cases.
  • Chancery Division (Ch) - contains cases heard in the Chancery Division of the High Court and cases appealed from there to the Court of Appeal. Deals with  cases concerned with mortgages, land sale, estate administration, bankruptcy, equity and trusts and probate business.
  • Queens Bench (QB) - contains cases heard in the Queens Bench  Division of the High Court and cases appealed from there to the Court of Appeal. The larger of the 3 divisions of the High Court dealing with judicial review, criminal law, tort and contract law.
  • Family Division (Fam) - contains cases heard in the Family Division of the High Court and cases appealed from there to the Court of Appeal. Deals with cases concerned with matrimonial matters and matters related to children.

Other report series are also available, some general (e.g. All England Law Reports or the Weekly Law Reports) and others more specialized covering a specific area of the law (e.g. Business Law Reports).

Use either Lexis Library or Westlaw to search for a case online

Paper copies of the Law Reports are kept at Shelfmark 340 on the second floor of the Middlesbrough Campus Library.

For help in tracing a case using paper you will need to consult the following:

Pre 1865 cases

Law Reports have been around since the reign of Edward I. Before 1865 law reports were published privately by individuals. These were referred to by the name of the reporter and collectively they were known as the "Nominate Reports".

The English Reports is a series of volumes which collected together most of the previous "Nominate Reports" of the judgments of the English Courts reported between 1220 and 1866. 

You can access this series online using  Hein OnlineLexis Library or Westlaw UK.

The paper copy is only available from the Off-Campus Store. Consult one of the Social Sciences, Humanities and Law librarians if you need to use this.

How to find the meaning of abbreviations

Very often the name of the report, a case is cited in, is abbreviated. 

Other sources of case law

It can take months until a law case is published (if  ever) in the official series. Newspapers sometimes do contain more up-to-date reports or summaries or extracts.

Please note that a summary or extract is not considered a primary sources of law if the full report is available i.e. they cannot be cited in court. A summary or extract can only be used if there is no full judgment reported elsewhere and it is the only source available.

Lexis Library also contains news coverage from both national and regional newspapers. This is accessible from the News tab on the home search page.

Newsbank is a specific online newspaper database contain the full-text of UK broadsheet newspapers.

The Times is regarded as being an authoritative newspaper source. We have a subscription to The Times Digital Archive (up to 2012) and

The Law Society's Library Catalogue also searches cases reported in the news.

Access to Law also gives a list of useful newspaper sites.

Unreported cases can be cited in court if there is no full judgment available elsewhere. Transcripts may be available, but often a fee is charged for the service. A transcript is simply a written word-for-word record of a court's judgment. Law reports will also have a number of editorial additions made by a qualified law reporter.

The Internet can be a good place to look for such judgments.

Other useful links can be found via Signposts on Lawlinks from the University of Kent.

If it cannot be found on the Internet the Inner Temple Library has produced a guide to locating transcripts of cases which is called 'The Transcripts of Judicial Proceedings in England and Wales: a guide to sources'

BAILLI available from the British and Irish Legal Information Institute is one of the main free resources on British and Irish case law and legislation. It contains some court transcripts.

Also worth looking at are the links available from Signposts on Lawlinks from the University of Kent. There are links to the Supreme Court website, House of Lords and Privy Council judgments and other tribunals as well as to judgments listed on the Courts and Tribunals Judiciary website.

The Law Society's Library Catalogue also gives access to an English Cases database which indexes cases that have been published in the English national newspapers and selected law reports (All England Reports, the Weekly Law Reports and The Law Reports official series) from the early 1990s to the present. It contains links to free transcripts on and subscription-only content may be contained within the results. Searchable by party name only.

Case law in action

This short video made by ICLR featuring two barristers. One of them serenely competent and well-prepared with the proper law reports to support her case, and the other rather less well-organised, chaotically downloading and printing transcripts from the internet, much to the judges irritation.

A brief introduction to case law research using both online databases and hard copy reference works. 

A short video following one of the ICLRs law reporters, Ben Urdang, as he goes to court, attends an important case, and explains all the different stages in the preparation of a law report and its eventual publication in hard copy and on the internet.

Case citation - OSCOLA

Order of case citation - OSCOLA syle:

  • Name of parties involved
  • Year of case reported in square brackets
  • Volume number of law report
  • Abbreviation of law report
  • Starting page number

screen shot of case citation - oscola style