Crack the Code: 10 Tips for Reading Cases

On the 10th of March, La Trobe Law School ran the first 101 Law Skills Workshop of 2016. Organised throughout the semester, these workshops aim to sharpen your legal and professional skills and provide you with some handy tips for your law school career.

After each workshop, we will make sure to summarise the essential tips for you on the Law and Justice Blog.

1. Practice, practice, practice.

If you’re an insomniac you might love reading cases – they can, after all, be excellent sleep aids. But for most law students, it is easy to hate reading cases and they can make your time in law school downright miserable. However, reading cases is truly a skill, and is crucial for every legal professional. The only way to acquire this skill and refine it, is to practice regularly. The more you practise, the easier things will get as your reading skills improve.

Remember, there are plenty of books about legal skills and surviving law school. These may be useful but they are no substitute for practising reading actual cases. The same goes for reading case excerpts in law textbooks: while it can help familiarise you with the ways that judges express themselves, it is no substitute for practising your reading skills with a real case.

2. Don’t jump the gun.

Before reading cases, make sure to have a thorough understanding of case law and the processes and terminology that come with it. To understand the procedural history or precedential weight of a case, you need to understand how court hierarchies and appeals work. Do you understand the difference between binding and persuasive precedents, and can you identify whether a past case was applied, discussed or distinguished? You will need to know what statutory interpretation looks like, and be able to tell the difference between ratio decidendi and obiter dicta. Also make sure you are aware of the different roles of the various people involved in a case: identify the plaintiff and defendant, or prosecution and accused, or the appellant and respondent. Understanding this terminology correctly will enable you to understand the underlying logic applied to a case.

3. Think about what you’re reading.

No two cases are the same: some might have headings, some might not. Some might look different or use a different language, making them easier or more difficult to follow. In particular, older cases tend to be shorter but less structured. Nowadays the High Court of Australia often makes use of headings in judgments, as well as trying to use clearer language than in the past. Make sure you are always aware of jurisdiction of the court deciding the case, and the year in which the decision was handed down.

4. Think about why  you’re reading.

At Law School, students are required to read cases for a range of different reasons. Are you reading this case to follow the development of a particular concept/doctrine? To see how a legislative provision or a certain precedent has been applied? To compare majority and dissenting judgments? The most common situation is that you are reading a case to try and extract the ratio, in order to know how to apply the case in problem solving at a later stage (in class activities or assessment tasks). Note that in some subjects, you may need to reread a case several times, with a different purpose each time.

5. Don’t rely on the headnote.

It’s important to read the headnote, but remember not to rely on this too strongly. The headnote isn’t written by the judge(s) and there are times where this summary misses vital things relating to the case. The headnote might express the reasoning in a different way than you would. It may also be irrelevant to why you’re reading the case, and can be misleading or even incorrect.

6. It’s not a murder mystery.

Avoid big surprises: a case shouldn’t feel like an episode of Poirot (sadly). Check the case headnote and outcome before you read the judgement(s), to make sure you understand where each judge ends up. Then the question became how they got to that answer – why was the case decided that way? Check the ending, and then see why the case unfolds the way it does.

7. Skim, scan, and drill down.

When reading a case, the aim is to quickly skim over everything: take note of the general layout, then scan the case to know what is situated where. Once you have an idea of how the overall report and each judgment is structured, drill down and read the important bits very closely. These bits vary depending on your purpose for reading the case. Whatever ends up being important, scanning the document beforehand helps you to locate those important parts, as well as showing you where to go for further details if you need them later.

8. Legal knowledge is legal power.

Being familiar with the conventions of law reports is an enormous asset. Knowing the general format that reports tend to follow, and where things tend to be located, helps you find the parts you are most interested in. This kind of knowledge is best gained by practising reading cases, on a regular basis.

9. Look for signposts.

Keeping track of what is happening in the law report, and particularly in the judgments is key. Practice this ability by looking for signposts like transitions, beginnings of paragraphs and helpful hints from the judge about what is happening. For instance, a judge may summarise the arguments of both parties, or signal that something is obiter by mentioning that it is not necessary to determine the outcome of the case. Watch out for signs like ‘in my opinion’, or ‘it is common ground that…’, which signal what is happening in the judgment. For each paragraph of the judgment(s), try to identify what the judge is doing – whether summarising the facts, outlining the procedural history of the case, clarifying a legal issue, considering a particular precedent, offering commentary on a particular area of law, interpreting a specific statutory provision, or something else. By developing this skill, you will be able to understand the structure of cases better, and find the parts most important to you.

10. Highlight, underline, annotate.

Make a habit of making notes as you go: highlight, underline, circle, use lines and arrows, and annotate in the margins to make sure you can locate important information quickly when going over the case again. At the end of reading a case, you should have written notes and scribbles all over it. This will be especially helpful when creating your case summary, and save you some valuable time if you need to revisit the case at a later date.

Want to learn more about different legal skills? Attend one of our upcoming 101 Law Skills Workshops!
See the 101 Law Skills Workshops flyer for more details.

La Trobe