Use this guide to locate case law (i.e., individual court cases) by topic or subject.  For example:

  • all cases on cyberbullying in Canada that have been tried since 2005
  • cases on intimate partner violence that were heard in the Supreme Court of Canada.

Locating case law by subject may be time-intensive so please allow yourself sufficient lead time.

For information on how to track down a specific, known legal case, e.g., Lebrun v High-Low Founds Ltd., 1968, 69, D.L.R. (2d) 422 (S.C.B.C.), please refer to our guide, How to Find Legal Cases.

Strategies & sources for finding case law by topic

Where to Start

The best practice for searching for case law by topic is usually to begin by searching secondary legal literature. Unlike many kinds of academic research, beginning with a keyword search (in a database of case law) is unlikely to be efficient.

Secondary legal literature includes legal encyclopedias, case digests and commentary, journal articles, and books and textbooks. These resources provide value by helping to organize the vast corpus of case law by legal issue, and by providing important information on the legal context a case it situated in. These resources can also point you to leading cases and help you find similar cases on the same legal issue.  

The secondary source(s) you choose will depend on what you are looking for. 

 

About keyword searching in legal research: when searching case law databases such as CanLII, a keyword search is a simple way to get started with your case law research - but is generally not the recommended approach for finding cases by legal topic. In a keyword search, your search term(s) may be searched for anywhere in the full-text of the body of case law.

However, keyword searching can be particularly fruitful if your search concept is fairly unique. For instance, a keyword search for "mustard gas" would likely return significantly more on-topic cases than a keyword search for insurance fraud would.

When choosing keywords, keep in mind that the case law writing tends to be technical and may favour the legalistic wording of a concept over the popular.

 

Sources of secondary legal literature

 

Use legal encyclopedias when you would like a high-level overview of a legal topic, including the leading cases and legislation that shapes that area of law as it stands today.

 

Canadian Encyclopedic Digest (C.E.D.)

The Canadian Encyclopedic Digest, accessed via Westlaw Next Canada, is the main legal encyclopedia we have at SFU Library. 

The C.E.D. is a legal encyclopedia in which legal topics are summarized. Important cases and/or legislation relating to each topic are included in the extensive footnotes under each entry. Additionally, the case law cited within the footnotes can be further searched within Westlaw Next to find other cases about that legal issue. 

Encyclopedia entries cover a wide range of Canadian legal topics, providing a comprehensive statement of the law as it stands now for each legal issue. Entries are concise and regularly updated in response to new legislation and court decisions. 

The C.E.D. organizes its encyclopedia entries by a topical classification system. There are broad topics (for example, Criminal Law - Offences, Hospitals and Health Care, Police, Shipping, and Youth Criminal Justice), and various levels of narrower topics under each broad topic. Some sub-topics classification areas can be quite specific, such as: 

Criminal Law — Offences — Automobile Master Key — Selling — Actus Reus

Entries can be searched or browsed through the classification system. Searching is particularly useful if you are unsure where your subject is classified. 

Cases covered are from Ontario and the four western provinces.

 

Case digests and commentary

Case digests and commentary include a number of resources dedicated to helping you finding (and understanding) cases by topic.

 

Canadian Abridgment Digest

 

The Canadian Abridgment Digest (CAD) is the premier source for finding legal cases by topic at SFU Library. You can access the Canadian Abridgment Digest via Westlaw Next Canada.

Please see our detailed guide: Using the Canadian Abridgment

The Canadian Abridgment Digest summarizes Canadian legal cases into a short paragraph or two, allowing for a quick review of their relevance. All digested cases are organized by a classification system based on legal issues, allowing you to locate similar cases at once. Note that a single case can be classified under several classification branches if it deals with multiple legal issues. 

For example, by browsing the classification tree, you can find cases organized under specific subjects such as:

Criminal Law - Charter of Rights and Freedoms - Freedom of peaceful assembly (5 cases).

Coverage: the scope of the the Canadian Abridgment is extremely comprehensive, with over 850,000 Canadian cases digested, spanning from 1803 to present. The Abridgment covers all reported Canadian cases, and includes unreported cases as well from 1986 onwards as well (excludes Quebec civil cases). The CAD is updated daily. 

 

Journal articles

Academic articles in legal journals can point you to precedent-setting and other important cases on particular legal issues, as well as provide some important context and discussion of the legal issue which the case law is situated in. We have access to several academic legal journal collections at SFU Library.

Sources for academic legal literature

About: The ICLL provides references to legal journal articles, books, government publications and other sources that discuss Canadian legal topics. This is small, focussed, and reputable collection of Canadian legal material

TIP 1: Because this is a small database, it helps to start with a simple search (e.g., less keywords) to keep your search appropriately sensitive.

TIP 2: This isn't a full text database, so you will need to make note of the citation and then find it elsewhere at SFU Library. (See AskALibrarian for help with this)

About: HeinOnline's Law Journal Library is a collection of over 2,800 law-related journals, featuring US, Canadian, and international content. There are five searchable sub-collections of journals within the core library, including one that focusses on international law journals.

To search, under databases by name, select "Law Journal Library". Note that many of these articles are searchable via the SFU Library catalogue as well. 

About: Provides access to core Canadian legal journals such as the Supreme Court Law Review .

To access, under secondary materials, select "Law Reviews and Journals".

 

Canadian News Databases

Searching news databases can be a great way to get started on searching for case law by topic. Newspaper articles can help identify key cases on a particular topic and may discuss the issues of the case in plain language. Case details can be used to track down the case law in other databases.

  • Canadian Newsstream: Full text access to major Canadian daily newspapers (such as the Vancouver Sun) as well as small market newspapers and weeklies published in Canada.
  • CBCA Complete: Canadian magazines, trade publications, newspapers and more. Useful Canadian focus.
  • Macleans' Magazine Archive: coverage of the Canadian news magazine from 1905-2015

TIP: Try a search for your topic keywords combined with the keyword "judgment". (Note: There is no "e" in judgment when referring to legal judgments).

 

Other recommended secondary sources 

Search the policy papers of think tanks, government agencies, non-profits and others for in-depth analysis on a Canadian legal issue and references to key cases on your topic.

Finding Canadian legal content can be a bit challenging, and even moreso if you are focussed on a particular geographic area of Canada. Other scholars (at SFU!) may have already written on your legal issue, and their work help point you to important cases. Search the work of graduate students - theses and dissertations - via SFU Summit, our institutional repository.

Download articles for free from the Continuing Legal Education branch of the Law Society of Ontario. Articles can point you to key cases and hot topics in Canadian law. 

Books and textbooks

Don't forget about books! Online or print, books can provide an accessible entry point for learning about your research legal topic and for finding related cases. Particular cases may be discussed in the body of the text or listed in bibliographies or appendices. Often, individual chapters within books, anthologies, or textbooks can provide a broad overview of a legal issue and may be less technical or less high include specific than academic journal articles. Books can also include treatises which treat legal issues in-depth.

Search the catalogue to find print and e-books. For example, a keyword search for euthanasia Canada law (limiting to books) brings up several useful books.

 

Finding a case by legislation cited

If you already have a specific law/piece of legislation you are researching (for instance, sections of the Criminal Code of Canada), you can make use of the legal databases and specialized resources to search for case law that cites that legislation. 

Keycite via Westlaw Next

  1. Access the case law database via WestlawNext Canada
  2. Select "Statutes and Legislation"
  3. Once you have located your desired statute or regulation, click to a specific section you are researching
  4. If available, click on the green letter "C" hyperlink. This link should retrieve cases that have cited this section of the law.

KeyCite a Statutory Provision in WestlawNext Canada. (Video tutorial 2:20)

 

Crankshaw's Criminal Code of Canada

Crankshaw's Criminal Code of Canada allows you to find important cases as they relate to sections of the Criminal Code of Canada. Easy-to-understand case digests are provided under the various sections. 

  1. Log into CriminalSource, available via WestlawNext Canada
  2. Under Commentary --> Texts and Annotations --> select Crankshaw's Criminal Code of Canada
  3. Expand the section on Case Law Digests
  4. Browse down to your desired Criminal Code Section and then subsections

 

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.