Case law is sometimes referred to as judge made law. In common law systems, it refers to the law that has been established by following decisions made by judges in earlier cases - legal precedents.
Disputed points of law will come before the senior courts for deliberation and decision. In this way the law can be changed or clarified, and a precedent set for all subsequent courts to follow and apply.
The ICLR (Incorporated Council of Law Reporting for England and Wales) provides a very useful Knowledge tool with reference and supports materials to help you understand the role of case law in our legal system. In particular you may find it useful to look at the following. You can also use the Knowledge tool to search for commentary on other aspects of case law and reporting.
For your research you will often need to find cases which contain a similar fact situation and legal issue as the legal problem you are interested in. You will also want to reassure yourself as to whether the case law you find is still 'good law' or whether it has been overruled or distinguished in later cases. The online databases are ideal for this activity as they can connect you to earlier and subsequent cases and related commentary.
Cases in the courts are reported in numerous series of law reports (print and online). Law Reports series editors select cases for reporting cases selectively. Cases are selected for reporting if they lay down a new principle of law, or change or clarify the existing law. Many cases remain "unreported," which means that they have not been published in a law report series - you may find some of these cases in the case law sections of LexisLibrary and Westlaw but many other cases are only accessible through official court transcripts - for a fee!
Key Databases for general case law research
The full list of legal databases is available from the Law section of the A-Z Databases List. Sometimes you will need to use a specialist database to access the full text of a particular judgment. However, the following sources are recommended as starting points for your case law research.
If you are referred to a case by citation, this is the easiest way to search as you can enter the citation directly in to the databases and find the exact case report you require.
However, if you only know the party names or the subject matter of a case, you can also use that to track down the judgment but be aware that you may well find multiple search results.
JustisOne, Lexis and Westlaw will be invaluable to your online legal research. You'll find more information about these services and training and certification details on the Key Legal Databases LibGuide
ICLR - The Law Reports series
The modern system of law reporting began in 1865 when a Council was set up to publish the decisions of the superior courts; in 1870 this became the Incorporated Council of Law Reporting for England and Wales. This official ICLR series is known as 'The Law Reports'.
They offer detailed coverage of the leading cases and appeals case reports from Queen’s Bench (QB), Chancery (Ch) and Family (Fam) Divisions of the High Court and Court of Appeal, references to the European Court of Justice, and Appeal Cases (AC) heard in the UK Supreme Court and Judicial Committee of the Privy Council.
The distinctive benefit of The Law Reports is that the case reports normally include a summary of counsel’s argument, prepared by the reporter who attended the hearing, and approved by counsel prior to publication.
Citations should normally include the year, volume number (where applicable), the abbreviation for the series, and the page number at which the report starts, e.g.  1 Q.B. 38
These official series should normally be cited in preference to any other series of law reports.
Other series of law reports
In addition to the official Law Reports series there are many other series of law reports.
Some are general series such as:
Others are specialist series such as:
Neutral case citation
Neutral case citations were introduced in January 2001.They cover judgments from all divisions of the High Court, Court of Appeal, House of Lords and the Supreme Court
They are independent of any series of law reports. The citations indicate the the court in which the case was heard and the case number. Paragraph numbers are also used so that a precise place in a judgment can be cited, and this is a great benefit whe n using online versions of judgments.
Example: Matthews v. Ministry of Defence  UKHL 4 at -
Here are some other examples with links to the judgments on BAILII
When a case is reported in a published series the normal citation will follow, e.g. Dunnett v. Railtrack Plc  EWCA Civ 303,  3 W.L.R. 2434
The neutral citation can be used to easily search and find the text of a law report in online sources.
Although early law reports are of most interest to legal historians, many cases from the 19th century and before are still cited today
The oldest available law reports cover the period c.1272 (the early years of Edward I's reign) to 1535. They are written in legal French or Latin and were produced anonymously. There are two modern editions of the Yearbooks: the Rolls Series (Edward I and III) (Old Library) and the Publications of the Selden Society (1307-1321) (Law Library, ground floor). Both series include the original text with English translations. An index created by David Seipp, a law professor at Boston University, is available for all printed Year Books from 1268-1535. The database provides extensive details and a sophisticated search form.
When compilation of the Year Books ceased, private reports began to appear, usually named after the reporter. The standards of these reports vary widely, partly because of the ability of the reporter, partly because of unreliable translations from French and Latin manuscripts.
Many of the cases reported between 1535 and 1865 are reprinted in the English reports (E.R. or Eng.Rep) which are arranged according to the courts in which they were heard.
These are sometimes called "nominate" reports, as they are normally referred to by the abbreviated name of the reporter
e.g. Co.Rep.(Coke's King's Bench Reports) These appear in vol. 76-77 of the English reports.
The Revised Reports (R.R.) cover the period 1785-1866 in 152 volumes and duplicate much of the material in the English Reports. All England Law Reports Reprint contains selected cases from the period 1558-1935.
The English Reports (1220-1873) and the publications of the Selden Society are available online via the HeinOnline database. The full text of the English Reports is also freely available on the website of CommonLII (the Commonwealth Legal Information Institute). Reports are browsable by year or by alphabetical sequence.
To find the English Reports on Westlaw use the Cases tab and enter the party names or citation in the search box. The results can either be read on screen or downloaded as a facsimile of the printed page (click on PDF of Case Report at the top of the results screen.) The same function is provided by Lexis.
Over 800 older cases have also been added to the BAILII (British and Irish Legal Information Institute) site as part of the Open Law project. Search by date or by case name.
The Proceedings of the Old Bailey, 1674-1913 is a valuable record of London’s Central Criminal Court. The searchable archive contains details of nearly 200,000 criminal trials.
Piracy Trials is a digital collection providing the full text of 57 books from the Library of Congress on the subject of piracy. The books were published between 1696 and 1905 in several languages and contain accounts of acts of piracy, trials and executions.
About the Court of Justice of the European Union
The Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) is the judicial authority of the European Union. It oversees the uniform application and interpretation of European Union Law in co-operation with the national judicial systems of the national states. The CJEU resolves legal disputes between national governments and EU institutions, and may also take action against EU institutions on behalf of individuals, companies or organisations whose rights have been infringed
The CJEU is based in Luxembourg and should not be confused with:
The CJEU is divided into 2 courts:
The European Union Civil Service Tribunal was a specialised court within the CJEU from 2005-2016, and its role was to adjudicate in disputes between the European Union and its civil service. These cases are now heard by the General Court.
Citing EU Cases
A European Case-Law Identifier (ECLI) has been introduced to assist with citing the case law of the CJEU. The ECLI is composed of the following four mandatory elements, in addition to the prefix ‘ECLI’:
For example, the ECLI of the judgment of the Court of Justice of 12 July 2005, Schempp (C‑403/03), is: EU:C:2005:446
This is broken down as follows:
The method of citing the case-law adopted by the Court of Justice of the European Union combines the ECLI with the usual name of the decision and the case number in the register. It has gradually been brought into use by each EU Court/Tribunal since the first half of 2014, and was harmonised as between the Courts of the European Union in 2016.
The constituent elements of the reference are as follows:
Searching online for EU Case Law
The recommended services for online searching for EU case law are the specialiased services:
Eur-Lex: free and official legal server of the European Union. It provides access to all secondary legislation of the European Union and all case law of the CJEU courts. Use the online tutorials for guidance.
You can also search full text EU case law via Lexis and Westlaw.
The European Court of Human Rights, which is part of the Council of Europe, deals with complaints brought by individuals or by contracting states against another state under the European Convention on Human Rights 1950 (ECHR).
Until 1999 the Court shared the responsibility of dealing with complaints with the European Commission of Human Rights and the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe. This process was simplified in 1999 by Protocol 11, which allowed individuals to bring actions directly before the Court.
Because many of the parties involved are either anonymous (usually identified by an initial letter) or governments it is often vital to know the application number of the case to identify it.
The official text of judgments and decisions appeared as Publications of the European Court of Human Rights from 1960 to 1996 in two series: Series A, Judgments and decisions, and Series B: Pleadings, oral arguments and documents. In both series each volume is normally devoted to one or two cases. Cases are cited in the format
Ireland v. United Kingdom, ECHR (1978) Series A, No. 25, 90
In 1996 these were replaced by a single series: Reports of judgments and decisions (abbreviated as DR from the French title, Décisions et rapports) Cases are cited in the format:
W. v. United Kingdom (1983), DR 32, 190, 192 orApplication 5935/72 v. FRG, DR 39, 46
The Yearbook of the European Convention on Human Rights, published since 1958, contains summaries of the decisions and judgments of the European Commission and European Court of Human Rights as well as relevant decisions of the Committee of Ministers; e.g. Austria v. Italy, YB 4, 116, 140
Case-Law Information Notes are monthly summaries of cases considered to be of particular interest. Notes from 1998 onwards are available online. Earlier notes can be found via HUDOC – see the guide for more details.
The European Court of Human Rights website incorporates HUDOC, a database of the official text of the Court’s judgments since 1959. To access the database, click on the HUDOC link to search the online database (in English or French)
BAILII (British and Irish Legal Information Institute) contains all judgments of the ECHR since 1960, except for some which are only available in French.
The International Court of Justice (ICJ) has its seat in The Hague, and is the principal judicial organ of the United Nations. It was established in June 1945 by the Charter of the United Nations and began work in April 1946.
The Court’s role is to settle, in accordance with international law, legal disputes submitted to it by States and to give advisory opinions on legal questions referred to it by authorized United Nations organs and specialized agencies.
The Court is composed of 15 judges, who are elected for terms of office of nine years by the United Nations General Assembly and the Security Council.
You can also the judgments via various online services including:
Westlaw - select Services and then International Materials and use the International Materials Index to find the ICJ materials
You may need to access case law from a range of different legal jurisdictions for comparative research. You can find out more about accessing international materials from the Key Legal Databases LibGuide.
Lexis & Westlaw
Lexis and Westlaw both have large collections of US materials and a varying degree of material from other jurisdictions around the world. The other common law traditions countries such as Australia and New Zealand have more significant coverage than some other jurisdictions.
You can use the Jurisdiction settings within Justis One to focus your case law searching on the UK or expand to other jurisdictions such as Ireland, the EU and the Commonwealth.
The World legal Information Institute provides free, independent and non-profit access to worldwide law, through collaborqation with the various national and regional legal institutes. You can use it to explore the legal materials that are freely available for particular countries around the world. Find out more about WorldLII
Print collections of law reports are shelved in the Lasok Law Library on level -1 of the Forum Library and are available for reference only. You can search for Law Report Series titles via LibrarySearch, and look up the title in the Guide to Printed Materials to find the exact shelf reference.
The majority of printed law reports series are also available to you online, as illustrated below for the Weekly Law Reports.
You have access to a vast collection of online case law through the online databases and these have great advantages over the print law reports as you can look at related case law, commentary and legislation alongside the particular piece of case law you are examining - this allows you to see the law in context.
More detail about these online databases is available via the Finding Case Law online tab.
When you are using the online databases for case law searching, be aware that many offer contextual information to help broaden your research and connect you with related materials. For example:
The database may link you related cases, legislation or commentary.
The database may give you an indication of whether the principles in your case are still 'good law' and/or show where the case has been applied, distinguished or referred to subsequently.
You may be able to jump between the judgments as the case moved through the courts; from High Court to Court of Appeal through to the Supreme Court, for example
You may be connected to legal definitions or current awareness articles on your legal terminology/ topic.
The added value features from the three main legal databases are highlighted here for illustration, but make sure to look out for similar functionality on the other databases you use during your research.
The precedent map is a really useful tool for seeing your case in context and saving you time in examining related case law.
Find out more about the Precedent Map from this short JustisOne video