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Law

Guide to research sources for Canadian and BC law.

 

This guide lists key sources of information for Canadian legal research with tips on how to use them.

For more general information about criminology and the criminal justice system in Canada, please see our Criminology research guide instead.

 

Popular legal databases

First steps in legal research

Where (and how) should I start my legal research?

You're likely reading this because you are brand new to doing legal research. You're in the right place!

The steps in this box are designed to help you get from knowing nothing about a legal topic, to having a basic understanding of relevant concepts and issues, and finding links to leading court decisions and legislation.

Follow the numbered tabs at the top of this "First Steps" box for tips on how to tackle your topic.

Other pages in this library guide (listed in the left menu) will go into more detail on using specific types of legal sources to take your research even further.

My number one tip:

Do NOT jump straight into searching for legal cases in a large database like CanLII. That is a sure way to get overwhelmed with information.

Instead, start your research with a book or legal encyclopedia (listed in Step 3) which will give you a broad introduction to the law in a certain area, and identify the most important cases and pieces of legislation. Even experienced lawyers do this when they are researching an unfamiliar area of law. This will save you hours of time and stress.

Maze image by Peggy und Marco Lachmann-Anke from Pixabay
Stopwatch image by Clker-Free-Vector-Images from Pixabay

Here are some fundamental things you need to know before starting any legal research:

Click on each link to learn more
  • Canada has both a national government and individual provincial and territorial governments, as set out in the Canadian Constitution.
  • Elected officials in the federal and provincial governments create laws which govern Canadians' lives.
    • The federal legislature (called Parliament) is in Ottawa, Ontario: it has both an elected House of Commons and an appointed Senate.
    • BC's Legislative Assembly is in Victoria.
  • Laws created by governments are referred to as legislation; they may also be called 'statutes', or 'acts', or 'regulations'.

Learn more about legislation

  • Laws which contradict the Constitution can be declared unconstitutional (invalid and unenforceable) by the courts.
  • The Constitution Act, 1867 sets out which level of government (federal or provincial) can make make laws on different matters; this is called the division of powers .
  • Federal government laws (e.g. the Criminal Code) apply to all Canadians while provincial laws only affect people in a specific province (e.g. BC's Motor Vehicle Act).

Learn more about the Canadian Constitution

  • All Canadians have specific rights under the Charter of Rights & Freedoms which cannot be unreasonably infringed by government.
  • The Charter was established about 40 years ago in the Constitution Act, 1982 which supplements the Constitution Act, 1867.
  • Government laws or actions which contravene the Charter can be challenged in court; many cases which go to the Supreme Court of Canada involve alleged breaches of Charter rights.

Learn more about the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms


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  • Common law is law that is not written down in the form of legislation.
  • It is the collected record of court decisions, and is often called "judge-made law".
  • Common law systems are based on a British tradition of resolving disputes before judges (and sometimes juries) in courts. Judges' decisions are based on applying precedents established in previous cases from equivalent or higher-level courts which dealt with similar facts and legal issues. This is known as the principle of stare decisis: "to stand by things decided".
  • It is an adversarial system, with two "sides" (usually represented by laywers) presenting their arguments to the court:
    • a plaintiff and a defendant in a civil trial;
    • a Crown prosecutor and an accused person in a criminal trial;
    • an appellant and a respondent in an appeal case.
  • In some areas of law, such as contracts and torts, there is very little legislation and decisions are based entirely on the common law. However, most cases require judges to interpret how to apply both relevant legislation as well as common law in specific disputes.
  • Judges must explain the rationale for their decisions either orally or in writing. These "reasons for judgment" are called case law.

*Exception: Quebec uses the civil law system for provincial matters of private law, based on the French tradition of written legal codes.

  • Judges must explain the reasoning for their decision in a given dispute. They usually do this by writing a form of an extended argumentative essay (in a highly structured format) which records several things:
    • the outcome or decision made by the judge(s)
    • the reasons for the decision
    • sources such as relevant legislation, precedents in previous cases, etc. upon which the decision is based.
  • These written or oral "reasons for judgment" of the courts are called case law.
  • Because of the principle of stare decisis -- following binding precedents from equivalent or higher courts -- judges must consult previous case law to identify which precedents may apply to a given situation.
  • Jury trials will not have a written case because the verdict is not made by the judge, but by the jury which is sworn to secrecy. The judge may provide reasons for their subsequent sentencing decision in the case, however.
  • Case law is also called judge-made law in contrast to legislation which is government-made.

Learn more about case law

Outline of Canada's Court System in a hierarchical chart with names of BC courts

  • Each province has several levels of court, including trial, superior and appeal courts.
  • Lower courts conduct trials and higher courts hear appeals from the lower courts.
  • A higher court may reverse (overturn) a decision if a serious error was made by the lower court's judge(s).
  • The highest court in Canada is the Supreme Court of Canada (SCC).
  • Trials usually have one sitting judge and sometimes a jury as well.
  • Appeal courts have more than one judge, always in an odd number to avoid tied votes.
  • In cases heard by more than one judge, the majority opinion rules. One judge generally writes the majority decision with input from the other judges.
  • If the decision is not unanimous:
    • Judges on the panel who agree with the verdict (meaning the outcome: e.g. to allow the appeal and overturn the lower court's decision), but disagree with the reasoning underlying the verdict may write a concurring opinion which will be included after the majority opinion.
    • Judges who disagree with both the verdict and reasoning will write a dissenting opinion which is included after the other opinions.
  • A single dispute could go through multiple appeals up to the SCC. At each court level, a separate written "case" would be published, explaining that court's decision. There will then be several "cases" with the same name. You need to carefully check that you are reading the decision from the court level that you intended which is usually the highest level of court.

Canada was created in 1867 as a colony of Great Britain. The British monarch -- currently Queen Elizabeth II -- is still Canada's head of state even though Canada now governs its own affairs. While largely a ceremonial tradition, this relationship is evident in Canada's legal system in several ways:


Image source:Justice Education Society of BC

  • All legislation must receive Royal Assent before becoming law.
  • Crimes are considered to be offences against the state, not only an individual victim, and the monarch is the head of state. Hence, the case against a person accused of a crime is led by the Crown Prosecution.
  • Because the case is brought by the Crown Prosecution on the monarch's behalf, the name of a criminal case will almost always be R v [the surname of the accused person]. The letter R is short for Regina (Latin for Queen) or Rex (Latin for King), depending on who is on the throne.

Primary law is binding in court. It includes Legislation ("government-made law") and Case Law ("judge-made law). Secondary sources -called "Commentary") explain the primary law. They include: dictionaries, encyclopedias, books, journal articles, blogs and more.

  • Primary sources are those which are binding in a court of law:
    • the Constitution and Charter of Rights & Freedoms
    • legislation
    • case law
  • Secondary sources -- also called commentary -- are those which explain the primary law, including:
    • dictionaries
    • legal encyclopedias
    • books
    • journal articles

TIP: It is almost always best to start your research with a secondary source!

Clarify your task and identify keywords and concepts

Click on each link to learn more

  • You need to understand what your instructor expects you to do, and whether they want you to use particular types of sources. This will help you to plan which search tools to use. For example:
    • Are you trying to answer a specific legal question? You may want to start with a legal encyclopedia
    • Are you writing a case brief? You may want to start by finding a "case comment" article and then noting up the case to see how courts have treated it 
    • Are you writing an essay? You will likely need to consult a wide range of commentary sources, including journal articles.
  • Almost every assignment will involve identifying the most important pieces of primary law (legislation and cases) related to your topic. Secondary sources like legal encyclopedias and books are usually the best place to start. But before you can start searching, you need to think about what you are looking for.
  • Try to identify the key facts, legal concepts and areas of law. Circle useful terms in your assignment and brainstorm similar terms. You will use these terms as a starting point to search for relevant information.
  • It might help to think about these things:
    • Who is involved? (the category of person)
    • What actions (or inactions) led to the dispute?
    • What areas of law might be involved?
    • What offence or legal issues are involved?
    • What possible defences could be raised?
  • As you start searching, you will likely find that certain legal phrases (which might be in Latin) are used to describe the legal issues related to your topic. This is an important step in your research process: to find the legal language that is likely to be used by the courts. You will have much better success locating relevant information if you use the correct legal terms. Make a note of these terms and look up the meaning of any that you don't understand.

These guides provide tips on selecting effective keywords for your legal searches:

You don't have to take my word for it ...

"Generating good search terms is critical to the effectiveness of your use of CanLll. ... The basic strategy is to begin by using as many different terms as possible that are relevant to your case and your situation, and try to gradually narrow and refine your search.

The additional challenge with generating search terms in Can Lll is familiarizing yourself with some of the most important legal terms and expressions that are relevant to your case. These can be part of your search strategy. Certain words and expressions are commonly used in particular legal fields. Reference to these words and expressions is often an essential part of court decisions, and you will see them appear over and over in reported case law.

You may have to do some background reading – perhaps using a legal dictionary or [encyclopedia] – to discover what the crucial legal terms are in your area of law, and start to familiarize yourself with what they mean. You will gradually pick these up as you begin to read cases and legislation."

SOURCE: CanLII Primer: Legal Research Principles and CanLII Navigation for Self-Represented Litigants, 2016 CanLII Docs 235, p. 26.

Get your bearings with secondary sources

The quickest way to get a basic understanding of a legal topic is to review some commentary sources. These are things like legal encyclopedias, books  and journal articles . A good secondary source will:

  •  explain the law in that area, and
  • ,point you to the most important cases and relevant legislation.

As you explore these secondary sources, you will want to:

  • note which area(s) of law are involved and which legal issues
  • look for legal terms that describe your topic; these can be used to help locate cases and other commentary
  • write down the titles of legislation (including specific section numbers) which are frequently mentioned
  • keep track of cases which are frequently mentioned: these are likely landmark cases which established precedents. In the next step, we'll look at how to use the information found in one important case to find other relevant cases. 

Click on the links below to learn about how these types of commentary sources can help you. You will likely want to use several of them.

Canada's common law system is rooted in the interpretation of written law. Language matters. Some everyday-sounding words may have very precise meanings in the law. Some terms will be in Latin. If you're not sure what a term means, look it up in one of these dictionaries:


Image by Caleb Roenigk from Flickr

See more legal dictionaries.

Use the KPU Library's  Summon search tool to look for different types of sources in the library's collection, all at once.
TIP: Use the "Content Type" filter for Book/Ebook in Summon to limit your results just to books.

 

 

Excellent starting point:

Irwin Law publishes a great series of books written in plain English called Essentials of Canadian Law.

You can read all of these Irwin Law books online through the KPU Library! Look for a book in this series on the broad legal topic you are researching, and then read the chapter on your specific topic.

 

Learn more about finding legal books at KPU Library

The Canadian Encyclopedic Digest is an encyclopedia of Canadian law.

  • It's a great place to get a concise understanding of current Canadian law on a vast range of topics.
  • If you are looking for the answer to a specific legal question, this is the place to start.
  • You can search the CED by keywords or browse from broad to narrower areas of law.
  • You'll find short statements of law, arranged in numbered paragraphs, with live links to leading cases and relevant legislation.

The CED can seem a bit overwhelming at first, but here are some videos to help:

Charterpedia is an encyclopedia about the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms

  • If you are researching the Charter, this is the place to start.
  • It is arranged by Charter section. You'll find an explanation of the purpose of the section, and a discussion of leading cases which have tested that section.

Articles published in legal journals tend to be very long, and are written for people who already know a lot about the law. You may find them overwhelming. However, they can be more up-to-date than books, and you can often find articles analyzing one specific legal case (called a case comment) which could be helpful if you're writing a case brief.

Learn more about finding legal journals at KPU Library

CanLII has a growing collection of commentary which includes books and legal journals as well as other secondary sources. I recommend searching the whole CanLII commentary collection and then filtering your results by type of source if you find too many. Click on the drop-down menu beside the "All Contents" filter to view the types of sources available in your result list.

Of particular note is the CanLII Connects collection which features case comments by leading lawyers and experts. This is especially helpful for recent cases.

1: Enter search terms in first box. 2: Click on Commentary tab in menu bar. 3: Click on All Contents drop-down menu. 4: Select CanLII Connects.

Here is a quick introduction to the Commentary collection in CanLII  which is a great place to start!


Video credit: David H. Michels from the Canadian Association of Law Libraries for CanLII on YouTube

Find the full text of primary sources that were mentioned in secondary sources

After using the secondary sources in Step 3, you will likely already have found references to important cases and relevant legislation related to your topic. Now you will want to find those primary sources.

Some online secondary sources such as the CED and CanLII Commentary will have links directly to the primary sources that they cite which is very handy. But you may only have the name and/or citation of a case or piece of legislation and will need to locate the full text.

The two main online sources you will use for this are:

For search tips, see these pages on the Law guide:

Check that your primary law is still "good law"

Good law [is] a term used to indicate that a statute, regulation, or judicial decision is current and still applicable. ... A judicial decision cannot be good law if it has been overruled or reversed, or if the statute on which it was based has been changed.”

Source: Glossary of Legal Research Terms by Diane Murley, Southern Illinois University Library, 2006. (emphasis added)

The law does not stand still. It changes for many reasons, including:

  • Legislators create and amend legislation all the time.
  • Higher courts may overturn decisions from lower courts.
  • Judges may disagree with established precedents and “distinguish” their decisions.
  • Courts evolve over time and respond to changing social norms.

To find out whether a decision is considered to be "good law" -- reflecting current practice -- you need to check whether subsequent decisions have followed its precedent or not. This is called 'noting up’ a case. You can also note up legislation to see how courts have interpreted specific pieces of legislation.

The main online sources you will use for noting up cases and legislation are:

See more on noting up cases.

See more on noting up legislation.

book cover for McGill Guide

Cite your sources in McGill Style

The standard Canadian legal citation style guide is commonly called the "McGill Guide".

  • It shows how to format references to both primary and secondary legal sources.
  • McGill style puts references in numbered footnotes at the bottom of each page.
  • The McGill Guide is only available in print format at KPU Library.
  • Our Quick Guide shows sample citations for most types of legal sources. See the "Cite your Sources" page of this Law guide for more help on formatting legal citations.

Help is available!

We know that legal research can be challenging. Here are some recommended guides to help. Please ask a librarian if you get stuck!