Further Guidance on Legal research - an overview
Researching law is a process which requires you to know where to look for source materials and when you find appropriate material to be able to interpret and then use such material. This guidance focuses on finding legal source material (reading and using such sources are considered elsewhere). The first point to note about legal research, concerns the type of materials you should be accessing. Lawyers and law students will work from primary source materials, particularly, legislation and case law.
There are also secondary sources such as textbooks, commentaries and journal articles that seek to explain the primary sources. In seeking to find source materials on a particular topic the Internet is an excellent research tool but it must be used with caution. In searching the Internet you may face a plethora of information sources. Some will be primary legal source materials e.g. legislation and cases, others will be secondary sources such as textbooks and articles. You must ensure that you select the most appropriate and reliable sources. A particular issue is that law changes so you must ensure that you have law that is up-to-date. Legislation may have been amended or repealed and a judgment may have been overruled or distinguished, so you need to ensure you use websites that will alert you to these issues.
As regards secondary sources, not all material that you will find, particularly on the Internet, will have been through a checking process and so may be unreliable. The leading academic textbooks and journal articles will have been peer-reviewed (read and commented upon by fellow academics) and may be relied upon as an authoritative source, but there are lots of sources that have not been checked. The latter should not be used in writing essays or preparing pieces of work. So use the Internet to get a feel for the sources available but then use databases such as Westlaw and Lexis Library to locate the sources whenever possible.
Textbooks are invaluable in seeking to understand areas of law, and may be used as a starting point in your research of a particular area. Always use the most recent version of any textbook, particularly in fast-moving fields of law, such as Criminal Law or English Legal System. This will help to ensure you are kept up-to-date with any changes to the law and are aware of current topical issues. Note also the existence of Halsbury's Laws of England, an encyclopaedia of English law, arranged according to legal topic area. Again this is a useful place to commence the research of a legal area. Halsbury's Laws of England is available online via Lexis Library. A textbook will contain references to legislation, law reports, journal articles and other sources. Pay particular attention to the sources in the textbook, as these should be located and read and may be the start of a research trail, for example, you read one source which leads to another relevant source and so on. Also be prepared to read beyond the sources you are directed to both by your tutor and the textbook. Your first year of legal study should be used to establish good reading habits.
You will find Acts of Parliament and delegated legislation via Westlaw or Lexis Library or from the Government legislation website, www.legislation.gov.uk/.
Where legislation has been amended, it will appear on Westlaw or Lexis Library appears in its amended form. Supporting information on a piece of legislation may also be found on these sites. Such information includes cases citing the legislation and commentaries on the legislation, for example, journal articles. Accessing such information ensures that your sources are up-to-date and relevant materials are helpfully collected together.
The features and limitations of the Government legislation website may be explored through a Frequently Asked Questions page, www.legislation.gov.uk/help#aboutLeg. Explanatory notes concerning individual Acts of Parliament, which provide guidance on the meaning of Acts of Parliament, are also available on this website.
The Parliament website includes information on the legislative progress of Bills, www.parliament.uk/business/bills-and-legislation/. On this site it also possible to access Hansard, which contains a verbatim account of what is said in Parliament. This information will give an insight into the issues surrounding legislation. However, when interpreting legislation such statements made in Parliament must be treated with caution. See Chapter 4 for the circumstances in which Hansard may be used in the interpretative process.
Law reports contain the decisions of the courts. These are published in series of reports, most notably: The Law Reports (the official series of reports made up of four subdivisions, namely Appeal Cases, Queen's Bench, Chancery and Family Division, which are the source of the most authoritative reports); The Weekly Law Reports (the most comprehensive general series of law reports); and the All England Law Reports. The reports are available in hardcopy form in most law libraries and in electronic form via Westlaw and Lexis Library. The advantage of using an electronic source is that not only is the text of the report accessible, but information is also given on the appellate history of the case, later cases in which it has been cited (and potentially approved, overruled or distinguished) and journal articles and other commentary about the judgment. This information is invaluable in determining what the case means and what, if anything, has happened in the relevant area of law since the case was decided.
Journal articles are a useful source of information, explanation and ideas. The articles have varied aims. Some may, for example, explain areas of law or highlight problems in the law, others may comment on a case or legislative developments or seek to develop an argument. The major journals will be peer reviewed and are a citable source in law answers. Journals that may be consulted are the Law Quarterly Review, The Modern Law Review, The Cambridge Law Journal and the Oxford Journal of Legal Studies among others. Again law libraries will contain hardcopies and give electronic access to such journals via Westlaw, Lexis Library or other databases.
Reading articles will not only enhance your understanding of an area of law but also expose you to writing styles and give you ideas on how to structure and construct essays and arguments. When asked to write an essay, or address any other type of question involving critical analysis, you will need to be aware of, and to reflect upon, academic debate on the topic.
You may be required to read reports concerning legal institutions, the personnel of the law and the law-making process.
For example, legislation may be preceded by Law Commission reports (see www.lawcom.gov.uk/), White Papers, Green Papers (see generally http://www.parliament.uk/about/how/publications/government/) and so on. These are accessible on the internet.
Where a report is consultative you will find responses published which allow you to appreciate the arguments and concerns about a particular issue. Such reports and consultations are not sources of law, but they are important sources of information about what is wrong with the law and how it might be reformed.
A final point...
Always ensure that you make a note of the reference for the source you are reading. This will allow you to find a source again and to reference the source correctly in an essay, should you decide to use it. Such practice will also save you time!