Legal Research Process

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Legal Research Process

  1) What is legal research?
  2) Primary versus secondary resources
  3) Print versus online research
  4) The research and writing process

1)   What is legal research? 

  • finding relevant cases and legislation (primary sources of law) using textbooks, journal articles, encyclopedias and other reference tools (secondary sources of law).

  • verifying that the law one has found is still valid and not overruled, repealed or otherwise questioned or criticized.

2)   Primary versus secondary resources 

Start your research using secondary sources of law to locate a broad overview or explanation of the law. Then finish your research by consulting and verifying primary sources of law.

  • Primary sources of law are : legislation, case law and decisions of administrative tribunals.
    You must consult primary sources since these affect legal rights

  • Secondary sources of law are: textbooks, journals, encyclopedias, reference or finding tools.
    Secondary sources have only persuasive in value and are not binding on courts.

3)   Print and online research 

It is important to be able to properly integrate both print and online research resources and to know when to use one source over the other.

Print Material

  • some material, especially textbooks, older cases and journal articles, is only  available in print.

Online Material

  • Online resources are often more up-to-date than their print equivalents
  • Lexisnexis/Quicklaw and Westlaw  Canada have large up-to-date databases of case law, legislation, journal articles and newspapers and are particularly useful for noting up cases and legislation
  • CanLII is a free source of case law and legislation
  • Online journal indexes such as the Index to Canadian Legal Literature (available on Westlaw Canada or QuickLaw) or full-text journal articles databases like Hein Online are also provide useful resources
  • The U of T library catalogue -

4)   The research and writing process 

Legal research is more than just the effective use of books and online resources; it is also the analysis and thought processes that occur as part of conducting legal research.

Before actual research begins,  think about and analyze the problem. By taking a systematized, logical approach to legal research, you will minimize the risk of inadvertently overlooking something. Maureen Fitzgerald, in her book Legal Problem Solving: Reasoning, Research & Writing (5th ed) [ KE250 .F57 2010 Course Reserves] identifies a five-step legal research process that she identifies as F - I - L - A - C:

Facts: Many legal research questions are driven by the specific facts underlying the question. If the facts are changed, the entire approach to answering the question - and the answer itself - will most likely change. It is therefore important for the legal researcher to ensure that he or she has all the necessary facts before proceeding further in the legal research process. In real life situations, it is important you ask questions to determine what actually happened in the client's situation. Sometimes, at the beginning of the process, you may not know enough law to be able to determine what facts are relevant, so it may be that you will re-evaluate the facts once you have started to actually conduct the hands-on research.

Issues: Once the necessary facts have been uncovered, it is equally important to then identify the relevant issues arising from the facts. In many cases, the issues will be quite obvious or may be directly identified by the lawyer you are working with. Often, the issues will be framed in terms of the question to be answered (e.g., "On what grounds may the police search the contents of a vehicle's trunk?" or "Did our client have reasonable grounds to dismiss Mr. Smith from his employment on the basis of Mr. Smith's conviction on theft charges?). The issues as identified will drive the legal research by affecting the type of resources to be consulted, the jurisdictions to be covered and the type of information to be obtained.

Law/Legal Research: Once the facts and issues have been defined, the legal research can begin by using the various techniques and resources discussed throughout this tutorial. As mentioned elsewhere, it is usually more effective to start your research by consulting secondary sources such as books, journal articles or encyclopedias to see what others have said about your issues. You can then start to read, analyze and verify relevant primary sources of law such as case law and legislation.

Analysis/Application: When the various bits of research have been uncovered, it is then time to analyze the research, and where necessary, conduct more research. Part of the analysis process involves applying the legal research to the facts of the case in order to answer the questions raised by the issues you have already identified.

Conclusions: If the research done appears to address the various issues raised by the problem, it is then time for the researcher to draw conclusions from the research and, depending on for whom the research is being conducted, prepare a legal research memo based on the research.

For many simple legal research problems, however, some of these steps may occur almost simultaneously, rather than sequentially. Think of this process as circular, not linear. Even if you have followed the FILAC steps in order, when at the "law" or "legal research" stage, you may uncover something in your research that requires you to ask more questions (e.g., "How old was the child at the time of the incident?" if the age of the child becomes relevant in the case law or legislation).

In real life, it is also important to realize that legal research problems are often not clearly stated. In those cases, the legal researcher should engage in some analysis to identify the relevant facts and issues; plan the necessary legal research required, and then to analyze and draw conclusions from the research conducted.

Finally, consider using a legal research checklist. Checklists will help trigger the standard steps you should be taking when conducting legal research. The Practical Guide to Canadian Legal Research by Nancy MacCormack, John Papdopoulos and Catherine Cotter [KE250 .C37 2010 Course Reserves,  provides a legal research checklist in Chapter 2 that will guide you through the research process.

If you have questions about legal research and writing arising from this module, please see any of the law library reference staff.