You are here

How to find legal cases by citation

If you need help, please contact Yolanda Koscielski, Liaison Librarian for Criminology, Psychology & Philosophy at 778.782.3315 or ysk6@sfu.ca or Ask a librarian.

Use this guide to:

  • Interpret case law citations
  • Locate a specific case

If you are looking for case law by topic/subject, please see Finding Legal Cases by Topic

How legal cases are cited

Every legal case citation has two basic parts, separated by a comma. The first part contains the case name. The second part contains case citation information: the year of the decision, the law reporter(s), and the name of the court where the case was tried. (There are some exceptions to this pattern).

Legal Citation Examples:

Example 1: Vancouver (City) v Rhodes, [1955] 1 DLR 139, 13 WWR (NS) 378 (BCSC).

Example 1: Vancouver (City) v Rhodes, [1955] 1 DLR 139, 13 WWR (NS) 378 (BCSC).
 
Example 2: R v Enden, (1988) 4 WCB (2d) 345, 66 Sask R 239 (Sask CA).
 
Example 2: R v Enden, (1988) 4 WCB (2d) 345, 66 Sask R 239 (Sask CA).
 
Example 3: Fibercom Systems Inc v Rogers Cable Inc, 2005 BCSC 419, 138 ACWS (3d) 63.
 
Example 3: Fibercom Systems Inc v Rogers Cable Inc, 2005 BCSC 419, 138 ACWS (3d) 63.
 
Note: There are no parentheses or brackets around the year of decision in this example as the year is represented in the neutral citation - a format which doesn't require either. See the Lederman Law Library's guide on legal citation for a detailed description of these kind of citation nuances.
 
Example 4: 2005 CarswellBC 644 (note: this is not a proper legal citation)
 
 Example 4: 2005 CarswellBC 644 (note: this is not a proper legal citation)

Databases will often provide their own unique identifiers for legal cases, alongside proper legal citations. The above is an example of one. Use these identifiers to find a particular case in a database. 

Quick definitions

R = If R is mentioned in the case name (example: R v Sloppenhorn), this would be a criminal case. "R" stands for Regina, which is Latin for the Queen. The Crown of Canada (aka Regina) is thus a party to the case.
 
Case name = The case name lists the people involved with the case. (Example: Wong v. Pippen would be a case name). Depending on the level of court and the type of case, the parties to the case might be called the plantiff(s) and defendant(s), petitioner(s) and respondent(s), or appellant(s) and respondent(s). The case name is also more technically referred to as the Style of Cause.
 
Case citation = This can refer to either the full case citation, or the portion of the citation that references the law report (example: 1 DLR 139). When a database asks for the case citation, you can usually enter just the latter.
 
Law reporter = Most cases are reported on by at least one law reporter, also known as a court reporter and a law reporting service. These law reports consist primarily of the judge's reasons for decision. The text of the decision will always be the same, regardless of law reporter. However, law reports will also usually include helpful headnotes summarizing a case. The law reporter might also provide some other value-added descriptive information, such as some subject keywords for the case, or citations to related cases.
 
Neutral citation = Introduced in 1999, the neutral citation is a convention for citing a case that does not reference a commercial law reporter. A neutral citation provides a unique and permanent identifier for a case, much like a social insurance number or a DOI. Because neutral citations were adopted at different times across the various legal jurisdictions, and are not applied retrospectively to older cases, many legal citations will not contain a neutral citation as one of its components. When citing a case, it is preferable now to include a neutral citation component as part of the larger case citation - if one is available. 

Find a case by name or citation

You will most often search for a case on a website by either:

1) case name, or,

2) case citation

A case name is the name applied to a legal case and is based on the abbreviated names of the parties involved in the case. Example case names:

  • R v Sun Glow Foodservice Ltd
  • Western Canada Wilderness Committee v Canada (Minister of Environment)
  • Moore v Bertuzzi

All legal databases will provide an option to search by case name. Often, the v can be omitted from your search. Note that if the case went through multiple levels of court (e.g., trial court, appellate court, Supreme Court of Canada), you will want to know a bit more about the case, such as the trial year, to identify the correct case from your search results.

A case citation refers to either the full case citation (including the case name), or a portion of the citation which lists court reporter information, year, and jurisdiction. When searching legal databases, the case citation search option usually means the latter. Example case citations:

  • [1991] BCWLD 038
  • 29 ACWS (3d) 43
  • 110 OR (3d) 124
  • 2005 BCSC 419 (a neutral case citation)
Many legal database no longer require proper punctuation when searching.
 
A case citation may also refer to a unique citation assigned by a particular legal database. Note that this format is not considered a proper legal citation, but can still be used to track down a case in a particular database.
  • 2005 CarswellBC 644

Finding your case in a database

Next, you will go to a legal database to find the full text of a particular case. You may use either an open access database such as CanLII, or one of the library's subscription legal databases such as WestlawNext Canada or Quicklaw. The main text of the legal case should be the same, regardless of which database you choose to search.

Use CanLII to Find a Case

1. Search by case name: R v Enden.

2. Search by case citation.

 

Use WestLaw Next Canada to Find a Case

1. Choose the option to search cases and decisions.

2. Search by case name (example: R v Enden) or case citation (example: 4 WCB (2d) 345). Limit to the legal jurisdiction (example: British Columbia) if you know it.

3. Find the correct case from your search results.

A = Check for the same year of decision.

B = See if any of the case citations line up.

C = Ensure the level of court (example: Court of Appeal) and/or jurisdiction (example: Saskatchewan) are the same.

 

Video tutorials

Find related cases by Noting Up a Case

If you have the citation for a particular case and you are looking for subsequent cases dealing with similar issues, you can note up the case.

When you note up a case, you are doing two things:

  1. Researching the history of a case: has this case proceeded to a higher court? What lower levels of court was this case already tried in?
  2. Researching which subsequent different cases have cited it

If a different future case has cited your case of interest, it is potentially about a similar topic or circumstance. One reason a judge will cite a case is if it is being used as a precedent for his or her decision. Accordingly, noting up a case can be a great method for finding similar cases as part of your research process.

WestlawNext Canada, Quicklaw, and CanLII all have note up functionality. Each legal database has a different proprietary name for its note up tool, but each tool is designed to meet the above two goals.

Quick guide to noting up cases

WestlawNext Canada: The note up tool is called KeyCite Canada. Look for the green "C", or select the "Citing References" and "History" tabs when viewing a case.

Quicklaw: The note up tool is called QuickCITE. Look for link, Note up with QuickCite, when you are viewing a case.

CanLII: The note up tool is called RefLex record. The note up tool is part of CanLII's RefLex record. CanLII's historical case law coverage isn't nearly as comprehensive as Quicklaw and WestlawNext Canada, so it is worthwhile to note up a case using one of these as well.

 

Why is there no case law available?

For some trials, there is unfortunately no written case law available. Case law is essentially the written reasons for decision of a judge or judges, yet the decisions are not always written. Here are four scenarios where there may not be a written decision:

  1. The judge provides an oral decision (also known as a "decision from the bench"). Whether a judge provides a written or oral decision is up to her or his discretion. Usually cases that are considered important or notable will be written up -- but not always.
  2. When there is a jury. A jury doesn't need to provide their decision rationale in writing - only a guilty or non-guilty verdict.
  3. When the case settled before it went to court. The parties can settle at the last minute before the scheduled trial. The settlement agreement won't be officially published.
  4. Some types of cases are off-limits to the public: criminal, family, bankruptcy and probate files, and those civil files that have an publication ban, are not generally accessible. You would need to be either a lawyer or a party to the case to access the private written decision due to the very personal or sensitive nature of the material. 

In a juried case, the judge might nevertheless provide written information on his or her sentencing decision. These are called quantums. (Please see SFU Library's Quantum Research Guide). Please note the publication of these quantums is sporadic and the decision to write them up is also based on the judge's discretion. They would in theory be written up for notable cases, but in practice, their production is quite sparse.

If there is no written decision for the case, you might still be able to find some more information. Here are some options:

  1. If a party in the case appeals the decision to a higher court (e.g., Court of Appeal or Supreme Court of Canada), that party is often required to submit the transcripts of the case in their application to appeal. Transcripts may become part of the file when there are witnesses statements/oral testimony in those transcripts. Once submitted, these transcripts will become part of the Court of Appeal file, possibly available for viewing in print format at the Court where the case was appealed. These court transcripts are typically prepared by private court reporting companies and do not by default become part of the public case record found at the courthouse or online - unless they are submitting in an application to appeal.
  2. Another option is to search newspaper coverage of trials where there is no written decision. Reporters may provide some written coverage of the proceedings.
  3. Sometimes both parties to a legal case will pay for a transcript of the oral decision (done by a court reporter), in which case it may become part of the official court record.
  4. Sometimes oral decisions are transcribed by the court itself (e.g, Provincial Court).

 

Citing cases

To cite legal cases, please see Legal Information: Citing and Writing.

Guides to legal research

Books and eBooks

The library has a number of books on Canadian legal research.

Related guides