Using Electronic Sources for Case Law
For a refresher on case law, go back to Overview, Law Reports.
Most UK law reports are available electronically in subscription databases. The Bodleian Law Library (BLL) legal databases page lists many databases available to Oxford students. Undergraduate students will find most of the law reports on reading lists are available on Lexis Library and Westlaw. This quick video introduction to finding cases on Westlaw and Lexis will help you find most cases, but for hard-to-find cases the notes below may help.
- Search in the right database and do the simplest search first.
- Sometimes you need to know what the abbreviation in a citation stands for before you can find the case.
- Be aware of common reasons searches might fail and how to troubleshoot.
- And finally, make sure your research is up to date.
Searching by subject is mostly covered in the search terms and connectors page, although this page may have helpful advice about which database to use.
Search in the right database
Online sources for the main UK law reports are listed below. If you know what the abbreviation in the citation stands for 'Search our Law Reports & Journals' on the BLL website is useful for finding both print and online sources for law reports.
Not all law reports on reading lists are UK cases. Australian, Canadian and even US cases crop up on undergraduate reading lists. Information about abbreviations generally indicates jurisdiction. The CaseSearch feature in Lexis Library can be another useful way to to verify that a citation is correct and to find out which jurisdiction it is. ‘Case Search’ is akin to The Digest, which includes Commonwealth cases and goes back to the 1500s. Canadian and US cases are mostly easily found by citation in Westlaw International. Free sites that provide cases and legislation from other jurisdictions are listed on the Introduction page.
Do the simplest search first
- For Justis, Lexis and Westlaw, search in the Cases section of the database, rather than from the front page.
- The simplest search term is a single party name, unless all the party names are quite common.
- The next best search is to use two party names joined by proximity connectors, for example, search for home /5 fire rather than R v Home Secretary, ex p Fire Brigades Union. The party name field may search for a string of words (a phrase) or it may put 'and' between each search term. Using proximity connectors avoids these problems.
- Don't search for abbreviations such as A-G or DPP.
- Search by citation if the party name doesn't work or the party names are very common. The law report citation comprises the year, the volume number if any, the abbreviation and the first page, eg  1 AC 37 or  1 All ER 55. It is also possible to search by neutral citation, which comprises the year, the court abbreviation and the case number, eg  UKHL 6 or  EWCA Crim 148.
See troubleshooting for suggestions as to why a party name or citation search might fail to find the correct result.
Find out what the citation abbreviation stands for
The best online source for deciphering abbreviations is the Cardiff Index to Legal Abbreviations. View our video on 'How to search the Cardiff Index' for more help. If you search in the right database the abbreviation in a case citation is usually enough, but it can help to know the name of a law report (or journal) if you have to go hunting in the SOLO catalogue or 'Search our Law Reports & Journals'.
Possible reasons why party name or citation searches fail:
- spelling errors and citation errors such as wrong year or wrong page/case number - try googling the full citation in the hope that the correct version is somewhere online
- the case is known by more than one party name
- incomplete citation, eg you search for  EWCA 259 but the citation should be  EWCA Civ 259
- you put the search terms in the wrong field (search box).
Possible solutions, in addition to the advice given above:
- If neither the party names nor the citation enable you to find a case, add any information you have about the case (eg, subject, court, judge, year) via the Advanced Search or Option features. Add one additional piece of information at a time.
- To find out if a databases has a specific law report, look at the 'Browse' page in the Cases section. Check the date coverage by clicking on the little i for information icons, or by opening the search page for the specific law report.
- If you cannot find a law report online, go to the law library and browse the shelves - all law reports are shelved alphabetically at 120 for each jurisdiction, or ask a librarian.
Searching by subject
It is usually better to begin research in secondary sources such as textbooks and encyclopedias. These sources will indicate the leading cases on a topic. If searching case law, use the most appropriate database. Both Lexis and Westlaw have extensive UK law reports, so either of these sources is suitable. The Westlaw Case Analysis page provides useful information about a case and links to relevant secondary information in a succinct fashion. Use Advanced Search (in Westlaw) and Search Options (in Lexis Library). Follow the advice given on the Search Terms page.
Updating your research
Each of the main legal databases has their own way of providing information about how a judgment has been subsequently considered in court. This information is crucial in a court system that follows precedent (see the Overview for a reminder about the doctrine of precedent).
- In Westlaw Cases, search for the judgment you are investigating. In the results, open the link to the Case Analysis, then scroll down to 'Cases Citing this Case', to find subsequent judicial history. Westlaw provide this useful explanation of their Case Analysis page.
- In Lexis Library, from the Home page, set Cases Source to CaseSearch and search for the judgment you are investigating. The results page for your judgment includes 'Cases Referring to this Case'. This page gives similar content to The Digest, without the useful subject structure found in the print volumes.
- In Justis, use the Justcite feature, which not only provides updating information, but which gives links to the database holding the report.
Westlaw and Lexis both claim to be up to date. Lawtel generally has more recent judgments than Westlaw (both are Sweet & Maxwell databases). BAILII publishes transcripts of cases from the higher courts and tribunals very quickly, and can be searched or browsed by court list or by the recent cases link. Cases on BAILII use only the neutral citation, and when the case is reported, add the best report to the citation.
Be aware that no legal databases are 100% correct - it is good practice to check a variety of resources.