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Getting Started with Legal Research
Before you begin searching for information, make sure you understand the legal situation or problem.
Analyse the problem.
Identify the relevant facts.
Identify the key legal issues.
Plan your research strategy - what are the key concepts/keywords and possible sources you may need to use?
Find Secondary sources to gain an overview of the key concepts/legal issues.
Use Primary sources to locate relevant legislation and cases - this is your key focus of research.
Evaluate your sources. Check for currency - make sure that your information is current.
Broaden your search using journals and core texts.
Document your research process as you go.
Legal Research Process
Researching legal issues will generally involve checking multiple sources and there is no ‘one size fits all’ approach as each legal problem will have its own unique considerations. The steps below are a useful guide but you will need to apply your own judgement and legal thinking skills in researching.
Legal Problem or Situation
Step 1. Analyse the problem – identify the legal issues
Think about the problem and understand the legal issues involved, not just the facts.
Does the problem relate to a particular jurisdiction or a particular period in time?
Do you have a thorough understanding of the legal terms and phrases used in describing the problem or situation? This will help you with Step 2, planning your research strategy. But check step 7 before you move on…
Step 2. Plan your research strategy – what are your key sources and key concepts you need to use?
What are the key concepts you need to research? (These will become your search terms).
Use a legal dictionary or encyclopaedia to check for synonyms or alternative ways of describing these key concepts.
In online legal databases you will sometimes need to use Boolean operators and other techniques to construct effective searches. Learning how these operate in different databases is important to assist you in planning effective research.
Step 3. Use secondary sources to get an overview of the legal issues
Consulting secondary sources such as encyclopaedias or commentaries will give you a summary of the law in the area you’re researching and also give you a sense of the broader issues and context with links (which you should note) to relevant legislation and cases.
Step 4. Follow leads to primary sources – these are your key authorities
Reviewing your topic in secondary sources will have given you links to relevant legislation and cases. These primary sources of law should be the key focus of your research.
Review the relevant parts of statutes and follow up on relevant cases.
Searching and browsing through these may lead you back and forth between the secondary and primary sources.
Step 5. Check for currency – are your authorities still ‘good law’?
Law is dynamic and evolving. Make sure that your information is current and that your authorities are still ‘good law’. Has the legislation you’re using been amended? Have you checked the most recent treatments of cases you are citing?
Use sources such as the ComLaw website or LawNow to check on the most recent state of legislation. Use FirstPoint or CaseBase to check how your cases have been subsequently treated.
Step 6. Broaden your search for more information as necessary, from journals, core texts etc.
Look more broadly at how your topic has been treated in core texts or journal articles. These can be helpful in discussing how legislation has been interpreted or applied in a comparative way.
Other secondary sources such as bills, second reading speeches, and explanatory memorandum can be helpful in understanding the area of law you are researching.
Step 7. Document your research process as you go.
Document your research process by making a note of what and how you search.
Take note of sources and record the details necessary for your referencing.
Note the search terms you use and your results – this will save you time and duplication of effort.