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Case law

Finding Australian and foreign case law
Unreported judgments – judgments from Superior Courts are often handed down on the day of the decision, placed on the internet in their unreported form, can be accessed via Court websites or AustLII or JADE BarNet.
 
Reported Judgments – are published court judgments, published by legal publishers like Thomson Reuters, Lexis Advance, CCH & ICLR in the UK.
 
Which version to cite?

An authorised version of a report should always be used where available

Follow these general rules:

  • authorised report if available (eg CLR, FCR, SASR) 
  • if no authorised version cite the generalist unauthorised report (eg ALR, ALJR, FLR)
  • Subject specific authorised report (eg A Crim R, ACSR, IPR)
  • unreported (medium neutral citation) (eg HCA, FCA, SASC, SADC)
  • always cite a reported version over an unreported version
  • law reports contain the reported (published) decisions of court
  • not all decisions are reported. Individual decisions are chosen to be reported on grounds of their precedent value
  • the superior courts, particularly the highest appellate and constitutional courts may have all decisions published
  • decisions of lower courts are generally not reported (eg. Magistrates Court)
  • law reports contain full text of a judgment, along with subject headings and headnotes
  • are fully searchable in case citators and other databases
  • unauthorised reports are still legitimate records of court decisions

Remember - in some instances, particularly in lower courts and tribunals, these reports are the only source of judgments.

What are authorised law reports?

Some law reports series are designated as the authorised series for a particular court.
For example the Commonwealth Law Reports (CLR) is the authorised series for the High Court of Australia.
These series contain judgments that have been approved by the court prior to publication.

Why use authorised law report series?

Rule 2.3.1 of the Australian Guide to Legal Citation states:"Where a case appears in an 'authorised' report series, this series should be cited in preference to any other reported version."

Which law report series are authorised?

High Court of Australia CLR Commonwealth Law Reports
Federal Court of Australia FCR Federal Court Reports
Australian Capital Territory Supreme Court ACTLR Australian Capital Territory Law Reports
New South Wales Supreme Court NSWLR New South Wales Law Reports
Northern Territory Supreme Court NTLR Northern Territory Law Reports
Queensland Supreme Court Qd R Queensland Reports
South Australia Supreme Court SASR South Australian Law Reports
Tasmania Supreme Court Tas R Tasmanian Reports
Victoria Supreme Court VR Victorian Reports
Western Australia Supreme Court WAR Western Australian Reports
 

The standard layout for a case in a report series is:

Case name

The case name contains the name of the parties to the case and this information is found on the first page. As many law reports cover the appellate courts, these parties might be referred to as appellant and respondent.

If a case is criminal one of the parties will be R (referring to the Crown).

Citation

The citation to the case can usually be found at the top of the second page. This is probably the most important information for identifying and finding the case.

Court

The court, and the judges who sat on the case.

Date

There are usually at least two dates provided; these are the dates/s of the hearing of the case, and the date on which the judgment was handed down.

Cathwords

The catchwords are often italicised and comprise subject terms which describe the case. The catchwords are useful in legal research in that you can use these catchwords to search for other relevant cases dealing with similar legal issues.

Headnotes

The headnotes is a brief summary of the case giving a brief statement of the material facts; a brief summary of the decision; and the authorities referred to in the decision. An authority is simply citation to case law or legislation relevant to the decision

Procedural history

This provides information on the history of the case, usually from what lower court the case is on appeal.

Counsel

Barristers who represented the parties in court.

Summary of argument

This summary of the arguments laid by both parties before the court are provided in only a few report series, including the CLRs and the ACs.

Decisions, including summary of material facts

This is the actual decision (judgment) of the court. It is common for appellate court decisions to include more than one decision if the judges write one or more separate reasons for decision.

Orders of the court

This is the order the court makes and is usually found on the final page of the law report.