Use this guide to begin your research on all law-related topics. Contact Julie Lavigne, the Legal Studies Librarian, for online or telephone consultations.
- Primary Source = In law, the only primary sources are case law and legislation; that is, something from a court or tribunal (eg, a judge's decision) or something which has the weight of law from a legislative body (eg, a law passed by the House of Commons or a provincial legislature).
- Secondary Source = Everything else, including commentary, journal articles, books, newspaper articles, images, government reports, etc, though some of these are considered more authoritative than others (eg, Parliamentary documents).
- Cases / Jurisprudence / Judgments / Decisions / Rulings = Written reasons of judges or decision-makers once a case has fully been heard. Known as case law, this can come from all levels of courts in Canada. Sometimes a judge will deliver a decision "from the bench" - ie, orally. This is normally transcribed and still findable. If the case never goes to trial, however - for example, if there is a settlement or if an accused pleads guilty to criminal charges - there is no final decision that you can consult. Cases heard by jury also do not normally result in a written decision.
- Laws / Acts / Statutes / Codes / Bills / Regulations / Bylaws = Various forms of legislation. For most purposes, "laws", "acts", "statutes", and "codes" are interchangeable terms, and refer to the final, official version of a law as passed. "Bills" is the term used for a proposed law while it is being considered by the House of Commons, the Senate, or the provincial legislature. "Regulations" are delegated legislation; that is, the power to make certain, specific rules under a law is delegated to a particular minister/department. Finally, "bylaws" are also a type of delegated legislation whereby municipalities (eg, the City of Ottawa) have been granted the power to make rules about certain aspects of their business.
For more detailed information on researching Canadian law using commonly-found Canadian legal resources, use The Canadian Legal Research and Writing Guide. The University of Toronto also has a good online tutorial.
Get quick definitions for Canadian legal terms using either Duhaime's Law Dictionary or Irwin Law's Canadian Online Legal Dictionary.
Look up abbreviations for case law reporters, journals, and other legal documents using the Cardiff Index to Legal Abbreviations.
ORIGINAL BEFORE CARDIFF INDEX: either the Appendices in the McGill Guide (Canadian Guide to Uniform Legal Citation) or
Legal encyclopedia can be helpful for getting an overview of the law in certain areas, as they provide a summary of the key issues, and refer to the key cases and applicable laws. The two most commonly-used legal encyclopedia in Canada are the Canadian Encyclopedic Digest (available online in WestlawNext Canada) and Halsbury's Laws of Canada (available online in Lexis Advance Quicklaw).
Even if your ultimate research goal is to find some cases, you should always start by researching books and journal articles written on your topic. First finding a couple of good articles or sections of a book discussing your topic will be far more helpful than searching directly for case law, because those books and articles will cite (ie, give you the reference for) any key cases and relevant laws. And remember, you don't have to read the whole book! Usually a chapter or two is all you need.
The easiest way to find law books and articles, both in print and online, is by searching on the Library's main page.
The easiest way to find law books and articles, both in print and online, is by searching on the Library's main page. Note that many of the best law books are still only available in print, so you may still have to spend some time looking in the Library. The vast majority of the law journal articles, however, are available online.
Search using keywords. Once you have your results, click on "Books" on the left-hand side of the screen in order to view just the books and e-books, or click on "Peer-Reviewed Journals" as well as "Articles" to see just academic journal articles. To search just articles and e-books, also select "Available Online". If you still have a very large results list, you can also use some of the following to further limit your results:
- Publication Date = Only choose this if you have been given specific instructions about how recent your resources should be, or if you know that the area of law you are researching has drastically changed at a certain point in time. For example, the laws around immigration and how to claim refugee status changed substantially in about 2002, so you would only want pre-2002 resources if you were trying to compare the new system to the old.
- Subject = Looking at the list of suggested terms may help you pinpoint more specifically the aspects of your topic that truly interest you.
Another important source of secondary materials can be grey literature, information published outside the usual ambit of scholarly or academic publishing. A lot of the research and reports produced by governments and international organizations such as the UN is actually grey literature. For more on how to research this type of information, see the Library's How-To guide on Grey Literature.
Another useful resource might be government information. See our Government Information Subject Guide for more details.
Omni, the Library's main search, is the best place to start looking for journal articles, as it covers a wide range of interdisciplinary journals in which legal topics may be found. More advanced researchers, however, may wish to also search in databases specifically targeting law, including:
Lexis Advance Quicklaw
Use to find articles in Canadian law journals. Search by keyword, and then limit your results to "Secondary Materials" and "Law Reviews & Journals" (under the tab for Content Type). To find articles discussing a specific case, first look up the case, and then click on "Commentary Referring to this Case" on the right-hand side of the screen. Note that while Quicklaw and WestlawNext Canada do have some overlap of case law, it is worth checking both systems when looking for secondary sources.
Use to find articles in Canadian law journals. Search by keyword, and then, from your list of results, choose "Articles and Newsletters" on the left. To find articles that discuss a specific case, first look up the case, then click the "Citing References" tab at the top of the page, followed by "Secondary Sources" on the left-hand side. Note that while Quicklaw and WestlawNext Canada do have some overlap of case law, it is worth checking both systems when looking for secondary sources.
Includes the legal journals found in Lexis Advance Quicklaw, but also has a broader selection of academic journals from a wide range of disciplines, particularly in the social sciences. Also of interest may be the business news and transcripts of certain television news broadcasts.
Includes articles published in most North American law journals, as well as a good selection of journals from across the Commonwealth. Also has special collections of US government documents, Canadian and American legislation, and topical collections such as documents related to slavery and to women and the law.
Once you have a short list of cases, use the style of cause (case name) or the citation/reference to find the case.
The Canadian Legal Information Institute provides free access to legal materials, including cases from all levels of Canadian courts. Use this site to quickly retrieve cases, and also find other cases that have cited it in turn (click on the "Cited by" tab at the top of a case).
Lexis Advance Quicklaw
Lexis Advance Quicklaw has the full text of most Canadian cases, plus a number of other useful features. For example, to find secondary sources discussing a specific case, first look up the case and then click "Commentary Referring to this Case" on the right-hand side of the page. Also use Lexis Advance Quicklaw to find the case history (ie, earlier related decisions) and to find other cases that may have discussed it (click "Citing Cases"). It is always worth checking both Lexis Advance Quicklaw and WestlawNext Canada when looking for this type of information.
WestlawNext Canada also has the full-text of most Canadian cases, plus similar features to what is mentioned above for Lexis Advance Quicklaw. To find articles discussing a specific case, first look up the case, and then click the "Citing References" tab at the top of the page, followed by "Secondary Sources" on the left-hand side. For cases that have discussed your case, click the "Citing References" tab and then "Cases and Decisions". Finally, check the history of your case using the "History" tab. It is always worth checking both Lexis Advance Quicklaw and WestlawNext Canada when looking for this type of information.
For more information on finding bills and statutes, see our Find Guide.
The Canadian Legal Information Institute provides free access to legal materials, including legislation from all Canadian jurisdictions. Use this site to quickly retrieve current or historical versions of federal and provincial laws. Also quickly find judicial considerations of a law; ie, a list of all the cases that have discussed a particular section of a law. For example, find cases that have discussed section 271 of the Criminal Code by, first, finding the text of section 271, and then clicking on the blue hyperlinked subsection. This opens a box which tells you how many citing cases there are (which you can then click to access the whole list).
Federal legislation @ Department of Justice Laws website
Use this to find up-to-date versions of all currently existing federal laws and regulations. If you need to know the history of any amendments (changes) made to a law since 1985, consult the Table of Public Statutes and Responsible Ministers.
Ontario legislation @ e-laws website
- Use this to find up-to-date versions of all currently existing Ontario laws and regulations. The history of a particular law can be found by clicking "Legislative tables" on the left-hand side of the main page, then "Public statues and ministers responsible", and then by searching for the law by title. Unlike the federal table above, however, it doesn't give you a section-by-section breakdown of the changes; just an overall list of all changes (ie, it only tells you that the law was changed in a certain year, and not which section of the law, so you would then have to go look up all the modifications in annual statutes to see if any affect the section(s) you are interested in).
LEGISinfo (Parliament of Canada)
- LEGISinfo is a service provided by the Library of Parliament which provides a wide range of information on every federal bill tabled at the House of Commons or the Senate since about 1994, whether or not that bill was eventually approved and became law. Also use this website to view transcripts of all the debates of the House of Commons or the Senate (use the links to the respective houses at the top of the page).
Legislative Assembly of Ontario
- This site includes information on every bill tabled at Queen's Park (the Ontario provincial legislature) since 1995, and many other documents, such as debates and committee reports, dating back to 1977.
LexisAdvance Quicklaw and WestlawNext Canada
If you are just trying to retrieve the full text of a law, these two databases are not the best place to go because they only let you view one section at a time. But they are very useful, however, if you want to find a list of all the cases that have been heard or decided according to a certain section of a law. For example, if you want a list of all the cases that have been heard that deal with section 271 of the Criminal Code, first retrieve the text of section 271 in either database and then, in Lexis Advance Quicklaw, select "Citing Cases" on the right-hand side, and in WestlawNext Canada, select the "Citing References" tab at the top of the page.
MacOdrum Library only keeps print copies of Ontario and federal legislation (as passed) in the Library. If you wish to view legislation from another province or territory, you have a couple of choices: (1) use CanLII to view the most current version of the law, or (2) go to the provincial or territorial legislature website to see what they make available in terms of bills, debates, etc. If you need help, please contact us!
The Canadian Guide to Uniform Legal Citation (also known as the McGill Guide) is the most common style guide used in law for citing your references. While the Guide itself is not available online, MacOdrum Library has created a help guide with the most common legal citation styles. Queen's University Library also has a good legal citations guide, as does the University of Toronto, and UBC.
Some law professors may prefer a different citation style, so make sure you always check first! The next most commonly-used style in Carleton's Department of Law & Legal Studies other than McGill is APA. MacOdrum Library has a tip sheet for this as well, or you can consult the APA section of the Online Writing Lab (OWL) of Purdue University, which is extremely helpful. For more information on other citation styles, check out our How-To page on Citing Your Sources.
According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, to plagiarize is "to steal and pass off (the ideas or words of another) as one's own [or] use (another's production) without crediting the source".
- 5 tips to avoid plagiarism:
- TAKE NOTES: writing down page numbers and references throughout your research is a good way to save time when you need to quote and cite sources.
- NEVER copy and paste material unless you cite it properly.
- At the end of each paper/report you must CITE ALL SOURCES you have used, whether you quote them directly or paraphrase the ideas.
- LEARN AND USE citation style guides and citation management tools.
- When in doubt, ask for help!
Useful sources for legal research and writing:
- Legal Research and Writing by Ted Tjaden (2015) [available online]. Ted Tjaden has also developed a useful legal research website in support of his book.
- Cardiff Index to Legal Abbreviations (for deciphering an abbreviation for a legal journal or case law reporter).
- Legal research: step by step, by Margaret Kerr, JoAnn Kurtz, and Arlene Blatt (2018).
- Using Sources Effectively: strengthening your writing and avoiding plagiarism, by Robert A. Harris (2017)