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A simple system for legal research by Mind Map: A simple system for legal research
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A simple system for legal research

Here is a simple system for approaching legal research. It's based on the idea that legal research is an organic, cumulative process, and that you only need one good document to get started. More than one is good, but one is enough. So... Start with whatever you've got, your starter document. Read it and understand it. Go back. Your starter document probably has references to other useful things. Read and evaluate as you go - and keep notes on what you have found. Go forward. Look for other documents that cite your starter document. So, cases which cite your case; or cases which cite your statute; or articles which discuss your case or statute; or textbooks on that general topic. Read and evaluate as you go. Go sideways: find more of the same. You might want to look for other documents like your starter document. So, other cases on that area of law; other articles on that topic. Find your starter document in an index database, then look at the subject headings and keywords they used to describe it, and search again for those subjects/keywords. Read and evaluate as you go. If you find something really good, it pretty much starts the whole process over again, with a second-generation starter document. Sooner or later you will get that deja vu feeling. If you have tried a variety of searches, and your searches aren't finding anything new, stop looking and start the hard work of analysis. Note that for each of these steps we are using pretty much the same tools (case law indexes, journal indexes, full-text sources, the library catalogue) just using them in different ways. So once you have mastered the basic tools, you can do lots of things with them. One last thing. Did you notice the bit that said you should read, evaluate and take notes as you go? Doesn't matter which system you use (though EndNote is good for extended research), just do it.  

go sideways: find more like your starter document

If your starter document is good, look it up in an index. See how they have described it - what terms and subject headings they have used-  and search again for those terms. It's reverse-engineering.

case law indexes

If your starter document is a case, look for it in the key case law databases. Look at the subject headings and keywords the database uses to describe it, and search again for those subjects/keywords. Key databases for NZ case law: LINX (via Brookers) and LinxPlus (via LexisNexis NZ) - essentially the same database, just via different publishers. Briefcase (via Brookers).

journal indexes

If your starter document is a journal article, look for it in an index database. Look at the subject headings or keywords that it uses, and search again on those. Several searches, probably - it's a playway thing. Key journal index databases: Linx/plus - particularly good for NZ content. You can limit your search results to articles. LegalTrac - it's big, but a simple keyword search should work. Check the Related Subjects headings in the right-hand sidebar. You can link to them and/or use them as search terms. Also: those other two via lexis & westlaw - can't remember what they're called - just ask!

library catalogue

If your starter document is a book, look it up in the library catalogue. You can link to other books with the same subject headings, and you might find some other useful search terms to try. And because books are classified by subject, you can also browse the call number - either online or by coming in to the library. You could try the same trick in other libraries' catalogues too, to see if they have useful books that we don't. Which might take you to a BorrowDirect loan or an inter-library loan. Don't know about those? Just ask - or search the library's homepage.

go forward: find subsequent documents that cite your starter document

case law indexes

Case law is typically indexed by case name (i.e. to find the case itself), cases cited (e.g. your starter document is a case and you want to find other cases which cite it) and statutes or regulations cited. Case law is also indexed by subject. In print sources, there are separate tables for each of these. With the case law databases, you can search the relevant field (e.g. cases cited, statutes cited or judicially considered). You usually need to be in the advanced search option, but it's well worth the extra effort. Want a demo? Just ask. Key databases for NZ case law: LINX (via Brookers) and LinxPlus (via LexisNexis NZ) - essentially the same database, just via different publishers. Briefcase (via Brookers). Search the Cases Cited field. You can also use  CiteCase, which lists subsequent cases which cite your case.

journal indexes

Journal indexes tell you about articles in journals (unlike the library catalogue, which tells you which journals we have but not what's in them). Typically they will give you the author, title, citation and subject headings. Often they will index cases or statutes too. A general keyword search for the case or statute should find relevant articles. Key journal index databases: Linx/plus - particularly good for NZ content. You can limit your search results to articles. LegalTrac - it's big, but a simple keyword search should work. Also: those other two via lexis & westlaw - can't remember what they're called - just ask!

Google Scholar

Google Scholar somehow knows what we susbscribe to, so it's not just about stuff on the web (though that has its place). It also knows who has been citing what, so it's worth a look, especially for articles. But it probably doesn't know everything, so don't rely on it exclusively.

go back: find & read the sources mentioned in your starter document

You should have good references, so locating the full text should be relatively simple. If your starter document is a statute, you might want to look at the bills and parliamentary debate (Hansard) that preceded it. The Law Subject Guide has tips for finding primary material (by jurisdiction), articles and texts. And if that doesn't help, just ask.

statutes

cases

articles

texts

start with what you've got

Chances are that when you start your research, you already know of at least one significant case or statute or text or article. If you are starting with absolutely nothing, find something general like a legal encyclopedia or a textbook. Let's call that first document your starter document.