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Please note: This handout was designed to be used in conjunction with the notes and other materials prepared for various bibliographic instruction sessions. It does not replace, nor is it intended to replace, appropriate legal counsel or professional / paraprofessional legal research.


Just as many research topics have geographic, economic, and social aspects, many subjects have legal aspects which we may want to consider. These aspects may require that we explore legislation, interpret the intentions of lawmakers, and perhaps even read a court case or two. In order to understand the legal aspects, we need to spend a little time on the process of legal research, understanding the primary sources of law, and identifying needed legal resources.

Three Basics

Legal research -- even the most basic kind -- is not easy. However, knowledge of some fundamental principles may make it less difficult for you to undertake.

First, when pursuing the legal aspects of any subject, it is always best to know something about the law and how the legal process works in the country, state, territory, province, etc., in which you are interested. In the US and Canada, along with many other countries, the law as passed is only a starting point for determining what we commonly refer to as "the law." Legislatures pass the law; law enforcement officers enforce the law; the judiciary interprets the law.

To interpret the law, judges often use legislative histories, those documents which record the intentions of legislators or the justifications for the law as written and passed. The importance of judicial interpretations grew out of the traditions of English common law where the decisions and rulings of the court reached the status of precedent. Precedents -- previous rulings -- affect the way the law is interpreted and enforced, which means they may be as important as the original law as passed. The discovery and use of precedents and interpretations help us to determine how the law may be applied to particular situations.

Second, it is paramount that the researcher understand something of the language of the law. All those "whereas's" have a tendency to make us skip words and thus often miss what a documents is saying. This can be incredibly dangerous if you are going to base an analysis of a particular situation on the contents of that document. To give you a famous example:

We respectfully petition, request and entreat that due and adequate provision be made, this day and the date hereinafter subscribed for the satisfying of these petitioners nutritional requirements and for the organizing of such methods of allocation and distribution as may be deemed necessary and proper to assume the reception by and for said petitioners of such quantities of baked cereal products as shall, in the judgement of the aforesaid petitioners, constitute as sufficient supply thereof. [From: Judith Schiek Robinson, Tappping the Government Grapevine: The User-Friendly Guide to U.S. Government Information Sources, Oryx (1988): 91.]

Did you recognize the Lord's Prayer?

Even the terminology of legal research seems to present a whole other language: shepardize, ex parte, demurrer, defendant, plaintiff, ratio decidendi, points of law, and so on.

Third, the researcher needs some knowledge of jurisdiction. Where was the law passed? To whom does it apply? Where is it enforceable? What jurisdiction -- area of authority or geographic area -- can hear a case relating to a particular law? Will the case fall under federal, provincial, municipal, or some other form of jurisdiction such as a tribunal, appeals body, international court, etc.?

Many of the resources you will encounter are organized along jurisdictional lines. For example, the Reports of the Supreme Court of Canada provide access based on federal jurisdiction. The New Brunswick Reports provide access based on provincial jurisdictional boundaries. Other works provide access to the law by broad subject area (for instance, Intellectual Property Reports) or by codification of precedents -- that is, cases dealing with particular points of law are drawn together. Still other resources provide a combination of access points. The American Digest System, for example, begins with a subject classification (each point of law receives a Topic and a Key Number of recent cases). When the bound volumes, known as the General Digest, appear, the subject classification is supplemented by several indexes including a Descriptive Word Index, a Table of Cases, and a Table of Defendants and Plaintiffs.

It is also important to understand the distinction between digests and reporters. The digest contains only a synopsis or abstract of the case concerned, with references to reporters that will carry reports of opinions and decisions made in the cases. The digests, then, serve as an index to reported cases. However, take note that not all court cases are reported, and most of those that are come from the appellate courts.

Primary Sources of Law

When we discuss "the law," we are usually referring to the three primary sources of law:

Statutes: policy as law, expressed as legislation;

Administrative Regulations / Adjudications: quasi-legislation, bureaucratic law, authorized by legislation or other authority, and binding on those to whom it applies;

Judicial Opinions: interpreted law, expressed as case law

For example, if I am stopped for speeding on a New Brunswick road, I would probably say I broke the law. However, what I likely did was break a regulation, a rule which, under the terms of Motor Vehicle Act, carries the force of law, even though the rule itself was never passed by the New Brunswick Legislature and does not appear within the Act. If my car was searched while I was stopped, the legality of the search under the particular circumstances might be determined by the interpretation of the law (the relevant acts and regulations) by an appropriate court.

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Sources of Canadian Law

Bills, Acts, Statutes ...

There are several sources of Canadian federal law. Various statutes of Canada -- the law as passed -- may appear in Public Statutes, Annotated Acts, Consolidated Statutes, and Office Consolidations. Justice Canada offers access to the Consolidated Statutes and Regulations. Individual federal departments and agencies may also have pertinent statutes loaded.

Researchers used to the process of codification should realize that it is a rarity in Canada. The Criminal Code, the subject of periodic calls for reform, and its commercial companion, Martin's Criminal Code, is one of only a few examples of a Canadian attempt at codification.

One of the best sources of current legislative discussion is the Parliamentary web site. For information on current bills, try the link to Chamber Business, which includes debates, journals, status of business, order papers, etc. Committee hearings will help you identify key players and agendas as well as providing some on the record comment. The Committee Business page includes mandates, memberships, studies, minutes, etc.


The Canada Gazette, published by the Canadian federal government, is the only official medium for the publication of all legally binding decisions of the Government of Canada, boards, agencies, commissions, and Crown corporations. It appears in three parts.

Part 1: formal public notices, official appointments, and announcements about statutes, regulations, and proposed regulations; published every Saturday.

Part 2: statutory instruments, regulations; published every second Wednesday.

Part 3: Acts of Canada after receiving Royal Assent; published when needed.

Canadian businesses are among the ardent readers of Parts 1 and 2.

Like its American counterpart, the Federal Register, the Canada Gazette is searchable from its web site.

Canadian Courts and Case Law

Case law originates from appealed cases -- cases are appealed on points of law. At the top of the Canadian judicial system is the Supreme Court of Canada, which serves as the final court of appeal for the nation. Each province has a superior level court which serves as a court of appeal, hearing cases emanating from the lower courts in that province. Depending on the province, this court of appeal may be called a Court of Queen's Bench (Alberta, Manitoba, New Brunswick, Saskatchewan), a Supreme Court (British Columbia, Nunavut, Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, Northwest Territories, PEI, Yukon), a Superior Court (Quebec) or the Ontario Court (General Division).

The Federal Court is a national court which performs a judicial review of the decisions of administrative tribunals, hears actions by and against the Crown, deals with intellectual property law, hears appeals from the Tax Court of Canada and also citizenship and immigration appeals.

The decisions of these courts are frequently, though not always, recorded in reporters or digests, and may appear on the 'net as well in various form.

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Sources of US Law

Bills, Acts, Statutes ...

US law appears first in the form of Slip Law (public law), then in the Statutes at Large (session laws) and finally codified in the US Code. The US Code consolidates and codifies by drawing similar topics together, incorporation amendments and deleting repealed text. It is the official compilation of general and permanent laws in force but does not include private, temporary or local laws, nor does it summarize the legislative history of the law (such a summary is often important in order to discover the thinking behind a law). Current Legislative Discussion is the place to start to discover that type of information. The US Statutes at Large from American Memory provides official access to all public and private laws passed by Congress in order by date (1789-1875). Other years are not available in electronic format. Public and private laws from the 104th Congress (1995-96) forward are available through GPO Access.


Regulations follow a similar pattern, beginning the cycle as Agency Documents, being published in the Federal Register, and finally appearing in the Code of Federal Regulations.

The Federal Register is the American counterpart of the Canada Gazette. It is a daily publication which documents presidential proclamations, executive orders, agency regulations, proposed rules, etc.

Each year the material in the Federal Register is codified in the Code of Federal Regulations. The CFR compiles the general, federal regulations of the US into 50 titles in subject order ranging from Accounts to Wildlife and Fisheries. Each title is further divided into sections and each section may contain subtitles, chapters, subchapters, etc.

US Courts

The US Supreme Court is a single court with national jurisdiction. Below it are twelve, geographically based Courts of Appeal, plus one Court of Appeal for the Federal District. These courts are often referred to as Circuit Courts. Below the Circuit Courts that are District Courts dealing with federal in the states and territories. The Court Locator provides physical and electronic addresses.

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Other Types of Law

Model Law

As you pursue your research in some areas, you may discover model and uniform laws which might have an impact on your comments and conclusions. It is important to recognize that a model law is not actually a law at all. Rather, it is a draft or model of a law on a particular topic, designed as a kind of cheat sheet for legislative organizations. Interested parties can use the model to make themselves aware of relevant issues, modify or adapt the model to suit their needs, or perhaps even adopt a portion of the model.

Uniform Law

Uniform laws are compromise or consensus laws on topics which may cross a number of geographic and jurisdictional boundaries. They attempt to harmonize disparate provincial and state law, for example. Because of the way they are designed, they are most effective if the whole or a very substantial portion of the uniform law is adopted by the interested parties. Uniform laws cover a range of topics from commercial conduct to sports agents to family support.

Treaties and International Law

Article 38(1) of the Statute of the International Court of Justice, as annexed to the Charter of the United Nations, provides one definition of the sources of international law. It notes four major divisions:

(a)international conventions, whether general or particular, establishing rules expressly recognized by the contesting states;

(b)international custom, as evidence of a general practice accepted as law;

(c)the general principles of law recognized by civilized nations;

(d)subject to the provisions of Article 59, judicial decisions and teachings of the most highly qualified publicists of the various nations, as subsidiary means for the determination of rules of law.

This type of law includes treaties and other agreements, sometimes called conventions, protocols, or declarations. Basically, these "laws" are written bilateral or multilateral agreements between or among sovereign states or international organizations (such as the UN), governed by international law, and a step above those agreements or memoranda of understanding not intended to create a legal obligation.

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Does the Law Lurk on the Internet?

While it has not yet replaced paper digests and reporters, if you want to access electronic legal information you need to use an electronic search. Link sites such as:

Law and Legal Resources
Canadian Law and Legal Resources
US Law and Legal Resources
US State Law and Legal Resources

can offer you a start at identifying those specialized sites which may be of interest. You could also get creative and restrict your searches to an appropriate domain using Google®, for instance.

Because of the vastness of the law, it would probably be wise to use a combination of specialized law and legal meta-indexes, and major link sites.

Take Care ...

A couple of cautions -- like other 'net subject sites, law sites range from the excellent to the pathetic to the absurd. You would probably never use only internet based (public access) information in your research or for arguing a case. It is unlikely that the electronic version would constitute the entirety of the official record. However, for the purposes of our broad examination of research resources, the 'net can be helpful, if you utilize carefully evaluated, known sources and resources.

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This page created and maintained by Linda Hansen.
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Created: 1995/10/12 Last updated: 2010/08/19
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