How to read case law (and actually understand it)


Faced with the prospect of reading a 100 page case? Or even a 5 pager? If it is written last century, I bet you are looking at that old English phraseology thinking - "what the hell does this mean!?" Luckily, Judges are writing in more plain English style these days and some even use headings which are super helpful (I particularly like the style that Federal Court Judges use and of course, ex-High Court Judge Kirby J!)

But, if you don't speak fluent Latin then here are some tips on how to read case law effectively, and be able to pick out the takeaway message from it and use it to your advantage in an exam, essay or in practice:

DON'T REINVENT THE WHEEL: Read the case summary! In most cases, someone else has already summarised it for you. If you search for cases using the Firstpoint database, click on the "Firstpoint Entry" and it will have a very useful summary of the facts and what was "held" (i.e. found and decided) by the Court. Journal articles are also a fantastic source of information on a case, especially if the case is a High Court authority. CaseBase will often list journal articles which mention or consider the case. Read them.

READ THE SPOILER: Read the conclusion first and the orders made by the Court. Who "won"? Knowing the end result before you start actually reading the case will save you a lot of time. I used to always hate reading a case which I thought was going to go one party's way then halfway through the Judge would change his/her mind or say "on the other hand" and then find for the other party. Reading it was exhausting! Save yourself and read the spoiler.

DRAW SOMETHING: When you finally get to reading the case, draw diagrams to represent each of the parties, how they are interlinked and who did what to who. I am a very visual person, and I found that looking at a picture was way better than reading 1000 words. You know the saying! This also goes for presentations. If you are faced with an oral assessment and you have to explain a case to your tutorial group, get the whiteboard out and guaranteed you will have everyone's attention.

TAKEAWAY MESSAGE: What is the ratio decidendi of the case? What will create precedent in the future? This is often found in the headnote of the case and the "held" section. This is the most important part of the case and is what everyone wants to know. Find it and explain it in plain English - if you can't explain it in layman's terms then you don't understand it yourself.

Happy reading :)