Overview of the legal research process
The following overview is adapted from notes prepared by Ruth Bird, Bodleian Law Librarian
The research path you follow will vary depending on the nature of your topic and legal issue. There is no single “right” path to take in conducting legal research. While there will be times when you will follow the research steps suggested herein in a linear fashion, that will not always be the case.
You will find that as you move through the research process, you will identify sources that will require you to revisit sources consulted earlier in the process. For instance, a secondary source may direct you to a statute, which leads you to an annotated section of Halsbury’s Statutes. In your review of Halsbury’s Statutes, you will locate relevant cases. Upon your review of one of the cases, you may find a reference to another statute that provides an exception to the statutory rule identified by your original secondary source. Your research would not end there, of course. You would return to Halsbury’s Statutes to review the section for the new statute to see if the exception applies to your factual scenario and to locate relevant cases.
Regardless of the path you follow using the steps below, if you are thorough and flexible in your research you will succeed!
Identify the scope of the legal question. Ask specific questions to identify: (1) the relevant jurisdiction, (2) key sources and search terms, and (3) the applicable time period.
Begin your research by consulting a secondary source. Core texts, Halsbury’s Laws, key articles, can give perspective on how your specific issue fits into a broader legal context and will assist you in finding on-point primary authority. Note references to pertinent statutes and case citations.
Identify relevant statutes. If you located an applicable statute in your review of secondary sources, review the annotations for the applicable provision in Halsbury’s Statutes. Browse the contents of the statute to identify any other pertinent sections. Browse the contents page of the Halsbury's Statutes volume to find other relevant statutes..
Identify the cases that are on-point for your specific facts. When reading secondary sources, note cases that relate to your set of facts. Follow up the cases, checking headnotes and reading judgments that seem applicable. One good case can be a great starting point for research on narrow topics.
Use digests to find more cases. Digests provide another excellent resource to identify relevant case law. The Digest is a good source for finding English and Commonwealth cases by topic. It has the same subject structure as Halsbury’s Laws.
Confirm that your authority is still good law. Use Westlaw Case Analysis, Lexis Case Search or a print citator to check that your cases are still good law and provide the most current, direct authority available for your set of facts.
Search online to fill any gaps in your research. Thorough research depends on the use of multiple research methods. Supplement the research uncovered in your review of secondary sources, digests, and other sources with keyword and/or natural language searches of relevant legal databases in Westlaw, Justis and Lexis. Use Boolean operators and connectors when possible to increase the accuracy of your results. Check the Journals Index in Westlaw for recent articles. Blogs, policy websites and so on are also useful, depending on the topic.
Keep a record of your research trail. Document all sources reviewed, including all sections and page numbers, regardless of whether you located relevant materials in them. This will help you later when you write up your research and need to check points.
Some keys to legal research success:
Get to know your librarians
Take the courses on topics/searching/endnote etc on offer
Get out of the Google-search mindset – ask us the tricks of each database
Look beyond Lexis and Westlaw
Use secondary sources
- Know when to stop!
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