Before you start looking for case law, it’s important to have some background understanding of the different formats that case law can take, including law reports, transcripts, and newspaper reports. This will allow you to make better decisions when searching for case law.
What is a law report?
A law report is a report of a court case produced by a legal publisher, which includes the judgement, as well as added content, such as headnotes and catchwords.
Which cases are reported?
Less than two percent of cases are reported, and these are mainly decisions from the Supreme Court (previously the House of Lords) and the Court of Appeal because of the weight accorded them by the doctrine of precedent. All Supreme Court cases are reported; most (but not all) Appeal Court cases are reported; only a small proportion of first-instance cases in the High Court are reported; only some specialist court cases, such as tribunals, are reported.
Who decides which cases are reported?
This decision is generally made by the editors of the various law report series. This means that cases of specialist interest may be overlooked, whilst cases that add nothing new but give an impression of broad coverage may be included. Judges can also recommend decisions for reporting. Cases are usually chosen for reporting if they:-
● introduce, or appear to introduce, a new principle or
a new rule
● materially modify an existing principle or rule
● settle, or materially tend to settle, a question upon
which the law is doubtful
● for any reason are peculiarly instructive
Does it matter which report I use?
Many judgments are reported in more than one law report series, some of which are considered more authoritative than others. There is a hierarchy attached to law report series, so, where possible, you should use a report from the Weekly Law Reports (W.L.R.; available on Westlaw) or The All England Law Reports (All ER; available in print in the library). Where a case is not reported in either of these, you may find it in a specialist
law report series, such as Business Law Reports (Bus. L.R.; available on Westlaw).
[For help with legal abbreviations, see this post here: Deciphering legal abbreviations]
What about cases that are not reported?
You may wish to cite a case that does not appear as a law report. An unreported case may be cited as an authority but it is less persuasive than a reported decision. Although there is debate around the precedent value of unreported decisions, they are often used in academia as they may contain the only statement of the law on a particular subject.
Transcripts – written records of what happened at court – are available on Westlaw for most recent cases.
Unreported cases may also appear in journals or in newspapers. However, double check to see if they are also available as a law report, as newspapers sometimes report prior to the case appearing in a law report series.