How Do I Find Case Law?

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Case law gives you an idea of what the courts have decided in circumstances similar to your own. It’s best to find recent case law (the last 10 years) from BC courts. Related case law will also help your argument since the courts look to past cases on the same legal topic for guidance in making decisions. Case law contains what is called the “reasons for judgment,” also known as the decision.

Finding relevant case law requires time and research. Each case is different and so there is no simple answer for how to find cases most similar to yours.

Before looking for case law you may want to look at more general information resources. These information resources may provide you with useful legal keywords that help you find case law. Information resources may also provide a list of relevant case law, along with relevant BC legislation, or court rules. For example, the Clicklaw wikibook JP Boyd on Family Law frequently refers to case law.

To find case law, search a legal database such as CanLII, which is a free database. Other case law databases available at Courthouse Libraries BC include LawSource and Quicklaw (you must be physically in one of our Courthouse Library locations to access one of these subscription databases).

How to search on CanLII

Go to CanLII and enter in keywords related to your case in the top search box.

For example, if your neighbour keeps a beehive and the bees have damaged your property you may want to use keywords such as: bees, neighbour. Place quotation marks around any phrases that you are using as keywords, such as "property damage."

Then click on the dropdown labelled All jurisdictions and select British Columbia.

It may take some time to find a case related to your own. If you are having difficulty, substitute similar words as your keywords. For example, substitute land for property. If you are finding too many cases, add more keywords or more specific keywords. For example, substitute roof for property. If you are not finding enough cases, use more general keywords. For example, substitute insects for bees.

Once you have found a case you are interested in, click on the link at the top Cited by. This leads you to a list of cases that have mentioned the case you are interested in and is referred to as "noting up" a case.

Noting up a case may lead you to find other, more recent cases dealing with similar circumstances.

Understanding how cases are reported and cited

Although all decisions are filed in a court registry, not all cases are reported. A case is usually not reported if there was a jury trial or if the judgment was delivered orally. The written decisions of judges are published on databases or in printed law reports, which are books published in a series. Newer reported cases are available online through free databases like CanLII or paid databases like Quicklaw or WestlawNext Canada. Older law reports can be found both online and in print law reports, which are all available to the public at branches of Courthouse Libraries BC.

It is up to the editor of a law report to decide which written judgments are published. Law reports can be specialized and report only selected cases. A law report may report cases from a particular court level (e.g. Canada Supreme Court Reports), a geographical region (e.g. Western Weekly Reports), a province (e.g. British Columbia Law Reports), or a subject area (e.g. Reports of Family Law). A particular case can appear in more than one report.

Law reports are usually referred to by an abbreviation of the title. For example, Western Weekly Reports are referred to as W.W.R. The titles of law reports are always abbreviated in citations; these abbreviations may be identified in an abbreviations dictionary such as Index to Legal Citations and Abbreviations available in print, or the online Cardiff Index to Legal Abbreviations.

Understanding how cases are cited

Since the late 1990s, Canadian courts have been assigning what is called a "neutral citation" to each case. A neutral citation consists of the year, an abbreviation for the province and the court, and a number assigned by the court. The citation does not include a reference to any printed series of law reports. A neutral citation is the type of citation you will see on CanLII.

For example, a neutral citation appears as follows:

Kits v. Kits, 2001 BCCA 284

In this case, Kits v. Kits was the 284th decision issued by the BC Court of Appeal in 2001.

When you are researching a case, you may find a neutral citation (as on Can LII) or you may find a citation that does refer to a printed series of law reports. Here is an example:

Case citation example 1.jpg

Freshwater Fishing Marketing Corp. is the name of the plaintiff, the person who started the legal action; Duchominsky is the name of the defendant. Together the names of both parties make up the portion of the citation known as the style of cause.

"1982" is the date the judgment was given.

"1983" is the year of the volume in which the case is reported; it is in square brackets because the year is required in the citation in order to find the case.

The "3" indicates that the case appears in the third volume of W.W.R. published that year and "83" indicates the page number on which the case starts. Only the first page of a case is given in a citation.

"Man. C.A." is an abbreviation standing for Manitoba Court of Appeal, the court which heard the decision.

A case citation may also appear this way:

Case citation example 2.jpg

More case law resources

To learn more about searching for case law, good starting points include:

This information applies to British Columbia, Canada. Last reviewed for legal accuracy by Courthouse Libraries BC staff, October 2015.

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