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Case Law: Getting started with Australian cases

Getting started: Case Law, Common Law, Law Reports

Case Law, Common Law & Case Research

A legal case is a dispute between opposing parties resolved by a court or equivalent legal process. Typically, this results in a judgment based on a judge’s interpretation of the applicable law. The body of rules or principles derived from previously decided cases constitutes the common law as a legal system. Case law research involves identifying and reading judgments to understand the reasoning behind them, and then applying this to a new set of circumstances.

Law Reports

Since the late nineteenth century, recent judgments have been collected in publications called law reports that 'publish' or 'report' decisions of select courts and tribunals. However, it is important to note that not all decisions are reported. In some instances, what is published reflects an editor’s decision on the legal importance of the case. While, in general, only the judgments of superior or appellate courts are reported, since their decisions set precedents for all lower courts in the judicial hierarchy.

Unreported Judgments

Judgments that have not been reported are known as unreported judgments. These may be cases that are signficiant and will be reported in due time, or they may be cases that have not yet and never will be reported. That is, cases from the lower courts, or those deemed not to have set a new precedent. While, in the past, unreported judgments were usually sourced directly from the applicable court or court library, today many are widely available in subscription databases or in the free, open access legal database, AustLII.

Authorised reports

Important cases are often reported in more than one law report series. However, among the various reports available, only one is ‘authorised’. It is this version that judges expect to have presented to them in any legal proceedings.

Below, is a list of authorised reports for select Australian courts:

Find Australian & NZ law reports (A-Z list)

Finding unreported judgments

Some unreported judgments may only be available from the court associated with the original proceedings.

However, a large number of 'unreported judgments' are now in subscription databases, such as Westlaw AU and Lexis.com (links, below).

Aother source of 'unreported judgments' is  the free legal database, AustLII. By definition, every case in AustLII is 'unreported', since its case material is sourced directly from the courts.

Legal abbreviations

Legal citations use abbreviations for publications and the courts themselves - For example, HCA for High Court of Australia, CLR for the Commonwealth Law Reports, Syd L Rev for the Sydney Law Review, Alt LJ for Alternative Law Journal, etc.

Try one of these indexes to decode your abbreviation!