- Primary Source = In law, primary sources are only ever case law or legislation; that is, something that comes from a court or tribunal (e.g., a decision by a judge) or something that comes from a legislature (e.g., a law passed by the House of Commons).
- Secondary Source = Everything else; including commentary, journal articles, books, newspaper articles, images, government reports, etc.
- Cases / Jurisprudence / Judgments = Written decisions of judges in court cases and tribunals, 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" - i.e., orally. This is normally transcribed and is accessible case law. If the case never goes to trial - for example, if there is a settlement or (in criminal cases) if the accused pleads guilty - there is no final decision that you can consult.
- 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 laws. "Bills" is the term used while a proposed law is being considered by the House of Commons, the Senate, or provincial legislature (e.g., Queen's Park in Ontario). "Regulations" are delegated legislation; that is, the power to make certain, specific rules under a law is delegated to a particular minister. Finally, "bylaws" are also delegated legislation, in that municipalities (e.g., the City of Ottawa) are given 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 Best Guide to Canadian Legal Research (from UBC). The University of Toronto also has a good online tutorial.
Look up abbreviations for courts, case law reporters, journals, and other legal documents using either the Appendices in the McGill Guide (Canadian Guide to Uniform Legal Citation; in print only) or the Cardiff Index to Legal Abbreviations.
Legal encyclopedia can be helpful for getting a fairly current overview of the law in a certain area, as they provide a summary of the key issues and footnote 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 Quicklaw).
Even if your research goal is to ultimately find some cases on your topic, you should always start by researching books and journal articles written on your topic. Rather than searching for cases by keyword and being faced with a results list of hundreds of cases, first finding a couple of good articles or parts of a book that discuss your topic will be far more helpful, because those books and articles will then cite (i.e., 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 in Summon on the Library's main page. Note that, as much as you may want to use just e-resources, many of the best law books are still only available in print, so you will still have to spend some time looking in the Library. The vast majority of the law journal articles are available online.
Once you have your results, click on "Book/eBook" on the left-hand side of the screen in order to view just the books, or click on "Journal Article" as well as "Scholarly & Peer-Review" to see just academic journal articles. If you still have a very large results list, you can also use some of the following to further limit your results:
- Content Type = This is where you choose "Book/eBook" or "Journal Article", but also use this if you want to see other types of documents; e.g., videos or government documents.
- Publication Date = Only choose this if your prof has given specific instructions about how recent your resources should be, or if you know the area of law you are researching 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.
- Discipline = Start with materials written in the discipline of "Law", but remember to be interdisciplinary! If you are researching a legal topic and how it affects women, for example, you may want to also look at resources written by scholars in "Sociology" or "Women's Studies".
- Subject Terms = Looking at the list of suggested subject terms may help you pinpoint more specifically the aspects of your topic that truly interest you.
For more tips on searching in Summon, please watch the following videos:
Summon is the best place to start looking for journal articles in legal studies, as it covers a wide cross-section of interdisciplinary journals where legal topics may be written about. More advanced researchers, however, may wish to also search in the databases that specifically target law journals:
- Use to find articles in Canadian law journals, using the "Journals" tab. Search by keyword. To find articles that discuss a specific case, first look up the case in Quicklaw, then click the "Quickcite" link near the top of the page, then click "Commentary Referring to this Case". Note that while Quicklaw and WestlawNext Canada do have some overlap as far as case law is concerned, it is worth checking both systems when looking for secondary sources.
Use to find articles in Canadian law journals. From your initial list of results, choose "Articles and Newsletters" on the left. To find articles that discuss a specific case, first look up the case in WestlawNext Canada, 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 as far as case law is concerned, it is worth checking both systems when looking for secondary sources.
For more information, watch the video on how to connect to WestlawNext Canada, Quicklaw, and CanLII.
- Includes the legal journals found in Quicklaw, but also has a broader selection of academic journals from a wider range of disciplines, particularly in the social sciences. Also of interest may be the business news and transcripts of certain television news broadcasts.
- Includes the full-text of most legal journals published in North America, as well as a good selection of journals from across the Commonwealth. Also has special collections of U.S. government documents, Canadian and American legislation, and topical collections such as documents related to slavery, and to women and the law.
- Includes a wide range of social sciences journals, including many in law. Can be particularly useful for interdisciplinary research with a legal angle.
- Search the full text of a wide selection of journals in all academic areas, but with particular strength in social sciences.
Provides access to scholarly literature from many disciplines and sources. While not always directly full text, if you connect via our library, you will be able to directly connect to the fulltext articles that are part of the library's collection.
Another useful set of resources might be government information. For more information on how to search for government information, see our Government Information Subject Guide, or watch this short video on finding government information.
Once you have a short list of cases, use the case name (if distinct) 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 the full-text of a Canadian case.
- Quicklaw has the full-text of most Canadian cases, plus a number of other useful features. For example, to find articles that discuss a specific case, first look up the case in Quicklaw, then click the "QuickCITE" link near the top of the page, then click "Commentary Referring to this Case". You can also use the QuickCITE link to check the history of the case (which you should always do, to make sure you've got the most recent version), and to look for other cases that may have discussed your case (click on "Summary of Judicial Considerations" and "Citing Cases" to retrieve these). It is always worth checking both Quicklaw and WestlawNext Canada when looking for judicial considerations and secondary sources.
WestlawNext Canada also has the full-text of most Canadian cases, plus similar features to what is mentioned above. To find articles discussing a specific case, first look up the case in WestlawNext Canada, then click the "Citing References" tab at the top of the page, followed by "Secondary Sources" on the left-hand side. You can find the cases that have discussed your case also under "Citing References" tab, by then selecting "Cases and Decisions". Finally, check the history of your case using the "History" tab. It is always worth checking both Quicklaw and WestlawNext Canada when looking for judicial considerations and secondary sources.
For more information on finding bills and statutes, see our Find Guide.
- The Canadian Legal Information Institute provides free access to legal materials, including laws from all Canadian jurisdictions. Use this site to quickly retrieve up-to-date full-text of a federal or provincial law.
- 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.
- 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, first, 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, but just an overall list of all changes (i.e., it doesn't tell you that section 2 was changed in 20XX - just that the law was changed in 20XX, so then you have to go look up that change to see if it affects section 2).
- LEGISinfo is a service provided by the Library of Parliament which provides a wide range of information on every bill tabled at the federal House of Commons or the Senate since about 1994, whether or not that bill eventually was approved and became law. Watch our video on Finding bills in LEGISinfo to learn how to use this service. Also use this website to view transcripts of all the debates of the House of Commons or the Senate (using the links to the respective houses at the top of the page).
- 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 some committee reports) date as far back as 1977.
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 Quicklaw, select "Note up with QuickCITE", or in WestlawNext Canada, select "Citing References".
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!
Citation style guides for legal research:
- 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 it is not currently available online, MacOdrum Library has created a legal citations tip sheet for a quick overview of some of the more common legal citation styles. Queen's University Library also has a good legal citations guide.
- Some law professors may prefer a different citation style, so make sure you always check first! The next most commonly-used style in Law and Legal Studies 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.
- 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 (2010).
- Legal research: step by step, by Margaret Kerr, JoAnn Kurtz, and Arlene Blatt (2018).
- Using Sources Effectively: strenghthening your writing and avoiding plagiarism, by Robert A. Harris (2002)
- Cardiff Index to Legal Abbreviations (for deciphering an abbreviation for a legal journal or case law reporter)