In my last blog post I suggested that reading cases was a good starting point for learning how to think like a lawyer. In this post I’d like to explain about the various types of ‘law reports’ and which series of law reports are the best law reports for you to read. To keep it simple I’m going to tackle it through a series of questions and answers.
Which are the best law reports?
It depends what you mean by best! But, the most authoritative law reports are The Law Reports
published by the Incorporated Council of Law Reporting for England and Wales
(ICLR). The Law Reports
actually refers to four series of reports which The Practice Direction: Citation of Authorities (2012)
describes as the ‘Official Law Reports’. They are:
- Appeals Cases (AC) covering cases heard in the Supreme Court and Judicial Committee of the Privy Council.
And covering cases and appeals from the three divisions of the High Court are:
- Queen’s Bench Division (QB);
- Chancery Division (Ch);
- Family Divsion (Fam).
The Law Reports (AC, QB, Ch, Fam) should be cited in court in preference to any other law reports.
What makes The ‘official’ law reports so special?
What about the All England Law Reports (All ER) and the Weekly Law Reports (WLR)?
The All England and Weekly law reports can be cited in court but only if the case is not reported in The Law Reports.
What about the law reports available online at Bailii?
The judgments available from the Bailii
website aren’t actually law reports. They are official transcripts of judgments. They can be cited in court but only if the case is not reported elsewhere.
What’s the difference between a law report and an official transcript?
Official transcripts are, for the most part, the text (written judgment) handed down by the court when delivering its decision. Sometimes, however, the text is revised and that’s where the official transcript comes in. The official transcript is the authoritative version of court’s written judgment.
So, what should I read??
Don’t be impatient! I still have more to say about law reports. I’ll keep it brief. In fact – brief – is the very point I want to make. There are lots of other kinds of law reports and some are quite brief. To give just one example, The Times Law Reports, usually include sufficient of the facts to enable the reader to know the context of the case and short quotations from the judgment and a note of the court’s decision.
So, now tell me what law reports to read.
From the point of view of learning to think like a lawyer the best law reports to read are The Law Reports (AC, QB, Ch, Fam) and the All England and Weekly Law Reports (for now at least).
In a word – headnotes – that’s why.
What’s a headnote?
A headnote, as you’d expect is to be found at the head (i.e. the top) of the law report. It’s written by a law reporter and – depending on the law report series – it contains some (or all) of the following:
- Catchwords (also called keywords);
- A summary of the facts;
- The law reporters interpretation of the court’s decision;
- A list of cases referred to in the court’s judgment;
- A list of additional cases referred to by counsel in argument;
- The procedural history of the case;
- A summary of the arguments made by counsel.
Which bits should I read? (And don’t say all the bits!)
Clearly there is no right or wrong answer to this and opinions will vary. But, assuming you haven’t read many (or even any) law reports yet, I suggest reading the summary of the facts and the law reporter’s interpretation of the court’s decision and then (assuming it’s a Court of Appeal or House of Lords/Supreme Court case) read the first judgment. In time you will learn how to identify and read only the key bits of the case but don’t run before you can walk. J
Can you give me a concrete task to get me started?
Of course. I’ll use the case of Carlill v Carbolic Smoke Ball Company  1 QB 256. You probably know the case already but that should help, rather than hinder, your reading. I’ve captured an image of the first page of this report and highlighted the catchwords (blue box) since they’re on the page. These catchwords – in italics – provide a few clues about the case. In times past when databases didn’t exist reading a case meant finding the case (in a book!) and keywords were very helpful. More important are the summary of the facts (orange box) and the law reporter’s interpretation of the court’s decision (green box after the word Held).
You can now read the judgment of Lindley LJ by finding the paper or electronic copy of the law report in Volume 1 of the 1893 Queen’s Bench Division reports at page 256 or you can read it on Bailli where they have given it the citation  EWCA Civ 1.