Law reports and the doctrine of precedent
Case law, which is recorded in Law Reports series, provides the bulk of law in the United Kingdom and acts as a source of law through the mechanism of the doctrine of precedent. According to the doctrine of precedent a court is bound by the decisions of a court above it and, usually, by a court of equivalent standing. Superior courts have the power to overrule decisions of lower courts and in certain cases to overrule their own decisions.
It important to know in which court a decision was made, and to know that a Supreme Court (or House of Lords) decision is worth more than a decision made in the High Court. It is also necessary to assess the chances of a particular court not following one of its own decisions, as the rules on the application of the doctrine of precedent on this point may vary from court to court.
The Judicature Acts of 1873-1875 created a court hierarchy, which was completed when the House of Lords became the final Court of Appeal following the Appellate Jurisdiction Act 1876. The modern doctrine of the binding force of judicial precedent only fully emerged when there was good law reporting and a settled judicial hierarchy.
As well as the binding precedent discussed above, there is also persuasive precedent from a high court in another jurisdiction. Persuasive precedent is often argued where there are no similar cases in a jurisdiction. In new areas of law, such as virtual property and IVF, persuasive precedent may be the only precedent available.
This diagram shows the heirarchy of the UK courts in a simplified form. Note that the Court of Justice of the European Union and the European Court of Human Rights stand alongside the UK courts heirarchy. Reference can be made to the Court of Justice from any court in the system. The European Court of Human Rights enforce the European Convention on Human Rights.
The Supreme Court replaced the Appellate Committee of the House of Lords in October 2009. The Supreme Court is housed in Middlesex Guildhall on Parliament Square in London.
Structure of a law report
One of the first things a law student has to do is learn how to navigate and interpret a law report quickly. A law report is more than just the judgment. It begins with the names of the parties, the date of the hearing and the names of the judge or judges, and, usually, the court. Then follow catchwords, which are indexing terms and the headnote, which is a summary of the facts and the judgment by the barrister reporting the case. The Law Reports (Appeal Cases, Queens Bench, Chancery, Family etc) include the arguments of counsel.
The judgment sometimes begins several pages after the beginning of the report. The judgment is often preceded by the abbreviation cur adv vult (curia advisari vult, 'the court wishes to consider the matter') or 'Their Lordships took time for consideration' or 'The following judgments were handed down'.
Judgments in the Supreme Court (and, previously, House of Lords) are generally 'handed down' in print form. Judges in the civil and appellate courts (both criminal and civil) will usually reflect upon a case before reaching a final decision. They therefore hold back or reserve judgment until a later date. In criminal cases after the jury has reached a verdict in the trial court, the judge may sentence immediately or call for reports and sentence at a later date. In other courts, decisions of judges are delivered orally (extempore) and recorded verbatim by the court stenographer. Official and unofficial law reporters attend court and take shorthand notes.
The following is an excerpt from a typical law report, with the various parts indicated on the right.
Activity - Reading Law Reports
- Read this pdf of Vellino v CC Greater Manchester Police  EWCA Civ 1249,  1 WLR 218.
- Click on the highlighted text for information about different elements of the report.
- Read the judgment, paying particular attention to how previous judgments are considered in relation to this case.
- Which Court decided this case
- How many judges were on the bench?
- Did all the judges agree on the decision? If not, who disagreed (dissented)?
- Which Canadian case was cited in the judgment? Is that decision a binding precedent in this court?
- Which Law Commission report was considered in the judgment?
- What legal point was cited from Holman v Johnson (1775) 1 Cowp 331?
Research skills: Use Westlaw or www.bailii.org to find out which House of Lords judgment considered the Vellino judgment in 2009. What principle from Vellino was cited in this HL case?
Study skills: Write a short paragraph or several bullet points explaining the key legal points considered in this case. Put the case name, citation and court at the top. Underline the points you need to study more to improve your understanding.
About law reports
Law reporting was regularised in the late nineteenth century. Prior to 1865, barristers attended hearings and wrote up and published reports of cases, often under their own name. These reports are generally referred to as 'nominate reports'. The proliferation of these reports, and uncertainty about what constituted the authoritative report of the judgment, led to the establishment of the Incorporated Council of Law Reporting (ICLR) which publishes the Official Law Reports. Many older reports were collected together and published in 172 volumes as the English Reports.
About 2500 judgments (less than 2% of all judgments) are reported in law reports series each year. Decisions of the Supreme Court (previously House of Lords) and the Court of Appeal predominate because of the weight accorded them by the doctrine of precedent. Only a small proportion of the thousands of first instance cases in the High Court are reported. When the Law Reports, the most authoritative reports in England and Wales, were proposed in 1863, it was suggested that they should include all cases which:
- 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.' (ICLR)
Judges can recommend decisions for reporting, but 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.
Many judgments are reported in more than one law reports series, some of which are more authoritative than others. For the fullest and most authoritative report read the Official Law Reports. The All England Law Reports or specialist reports are often cited on reading lists; generally speaking, the judgment should be the same in each report particulary for contemporary reports, although the headnote and other information included by the barrister who has prepared the report will be different.
The Hierarchy of Law Reports
Practice Direction: Citation of Authorities 2012 states that if a case is reported in the Official Law Reports 'that report must be cited. These are the most authoritative reports; they contain a summary of the argument. Other series of reports and official transcripts of judgment may only be used when a case is not reported in the Official Law Reports'. It goes on to say that if the judgment is not reported in the Official Law Reports, then the All England Law Reports or Weekly Law Reports should be cited.
- The Official Law Reports: Appeal Cases (AC), Queen's Bench (QB), Family (Fam), Chancery (Ch) and earlier series of the Law Reports published by the ICLR have been the most authoritative reports (or 'best report') since 1865. These reports include summaries of counsels' argument. The Appeal Cases includes judgments from the Supreme Court (and, previously, the House of Lords), the Privy Council and, occasionally, the Court of Justice of the European Union. The Queen's Bench, Chancery, and Family Law Report series predominantly report appeals to the Court of Appeal (Civil Division) and the Court of Justice (EU) from, respectively, the Queen's Bench, Chancery and Family Divisions of the High Court. These series may also include judgments from the High Court, District Court and tribunals.
- The Weekly Law Reports (WLR) are also published by the ICLR. As their name suggests, judgments are published much more quickly in these reports than in the Official Law Reports. Judgments in Volumes 2 and 3 of the WLRs are generally republished in the Official Law Reports after the judge has checked the judgment and additional material such as the argument of counsel has been prepared.
- The All England Law Reports (All ER) have been published by Butterworths/Lexis since 1936. The criteria for reporting a case in the All ER is similar to that used for the Official Law Reports. The All ERs report more judgments more quickly than the Law Reports. The All ERs have cross references to Halsbury's Statutes and Halsbury's Laws.
- There are many subject-based or specialist law reports, such as the Criminal Law Reports (Crim LR), Reports of Patent Cases (RPC), and Lloyd's Law Reports (Lloyd's Rep). These may be cited in the courts if the judgment is not reported in the Offficial Law Reports, the All ER or the WLR. There are also brief reports of judgments in newspapers such as the Timesand case comments in legal journals.
- Official transcripts, identified by the case's neutral citation, should only be cited in court if they contain a relevant statement of legal principle not found in a reported case (Practice Direction: Citation of Authorities 2012 ). However many academics read judgments as soon as they are handed down (and before they are reported in a law report series) so cases are often cited on reading lists with only party names and the neutral citation. Transcripts are generally freely available on the British and Irish Legal Information Institute website (www.bailii.org), the Supreme Court website and the Judiciary websites.
Understanding case citations
Contemporary cases have three main elements in the citation: party names (in italics), the neutral citation, and the report of the judgment. For judgments prior to the introduction of neutral citations, cite party names (in italics), the report of the judgment and the abbreviated name of the court, in brackets. If you quote or paraphrase from a judgment you also need to provide a pinpoint.
Party (or case) Names
The names of the parties in a judgment should be in italic or underlined. If there are multiple parties in a case, name only the first claimant and the first defendant, and use only surnames. Abbreviate terms such as Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) and Company (Co).
A neutral citation identifies a judgment; it is perhaps mostly easily understood as a judgment number, even though it looks like a citation for a law report. The term 'neutral' is used to indicate that it is independent of any published report ('media neutral'). Neutral citations were first issued by the House of Lords, Privy Council, Court of Appeal and Administrative Court in 2001, and by all other divisions of the High Court in 2002. Tribunals and commissions also issue neutral citations.
Neutral citations give the year of judgment in square brackets, the court abbreviation and the judgment number. Neutral citations from the High Court include the division in brackets after the judgment number. Examples of neutral citations follow.
Name of case
|High Court Division|
|A v Essex County Council||||UKSC||33|
Jameel v Wall Street Journal Europe
Chandler v Cape plc
|University of Oxford v Broughton||||EWHC||75|
When citing a report of a judgment, cite the 'best report' (as indicated in the hierarchy of law reports table above), giving the year of the volume, the volume number if there is one, the abbreviation of the law report series and the first page of the report. If there is no neutral citation (which will be the case before 2001), also indicate the court in brackets at the end.
Name of case
|Carlill v Carbolic Smoke Ball Co||||1||QB||256||(CA)|
|Donoghue v Stevenson||||AC||562||(HL Sc)|
|El Ajou v Dollar Land Holdings||||3||All ER||717||(Ch)|
|Bailey||(1983)||77||Cr App R||76||(CA)|
Citations including neutral citations and report citations: give the neutral citation first, followed by a citation of the best report, separated by a comma.
Name of case
|R (Roberts) v Parole Board|| EWCA Civ 1031,|| QB 410|
Corr v IBC Vehicles Ltd
| UKHL 13,|| 1 AC 884|
|Court v Despalliers|| EWHC 3340 (Ch),|| 2 All ER 451|
|Jones v Kaney|| UKSC 13,|| 2 AC 398|
About square brackets and round brackets in law report and journal citations
Square brackets [ ] are used where the series has no consecutive volume numbers and the year is essential for finding the correct volume. So, the report of Donoghue v Stevenson is in the 1932 volume of the Appeal Cases, beginning at page 562, which is written  AC 562. Neutral citations also use square brackets for the year.
Round brackets ( ) are used around the year in a legal citation when the series has consecutive volume numbers and the year is not essential for finding the case. For example, to find the report cited as (1983) 77 Cr App R 76 you don't need the date because the volume number - 77 - indicates where you will find the report.
The Official Law Reports, the All Englands and some other reports series that use the year as a volume number often have more than one volume each year. The volume number follows the year, after the square brackets. Annual volume numbers rarely go above 5.
Square brackets and round brackets are used in the same way in legal journal citations.
Quoting from judgments, or, using pinpoints
A pinpoint is a reference to a particular paragraph or page number. All judgments with neutral citations have numbered paragraphs. When quoting from a judgment, provide the paragraphs being quoted in square brackets at the end of the citation, as shown with the  in square brackets at the end of the citation in R v G (below). If citing more than one paragraph, separate them with commas, eg , . If citing several paragraphs in a row, join them with a hyphen or em dash, eg -.
R v G  UKHL 37,  1 AC 92 -.
To reference quotes from judgments that don't have paragraph numbers, cite the page number after the court. The following example is citing a quote from or a reference to page 714 of the report..
Beattie v E & F Beattie Ltd  Ch 708 (CA) 714.
Decoding law report abbreviations
Abbreviations are commonly used when referring to law reports and law journals. Use the Cardiff Index to Legal Abbreviations to find out what abbreviations stand for. The Cardiff Index includes abbreviations for UK and foreign law reports and journals, and some legislative publications and major textbooks. Westlaw, Lexis and other databases also have information about abbreviations.
If in the law library, you may prefer to use D Raistrick, Index to Legal Citations and Abbreviations (3rd edn, Sweet & Maxwell 2008), which is available at the Enquiry Desk.
Court abbreviations in neutral citations
- UKSC: Supreme Court; UKHL: House of Lords; UKPC: Privy Council
- EWCA Crim: England and Wales Court of Appeal (Criminal Division); EWCA Civ: England and Wales Court of Appeal (Civil Division).
- EWHC: England and Wales High Court; the various Divisions are indicated in brackets after the judgment number. (QB), (Admin), (Pat) etc.
For more information about abbreviations in neutral citations see bailii.