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Georgetown Law Library

United Kingdom Legal Research Guide

This in-depth guide will help researchers navigate legal materials for the United Kingdom.

UK Case Law

Table of Contents

Citations to UK Case Law

For U.S. researchers who are unfamiliar with UK case law citations, the first step in retrieving a UK case will be to decipher the citation to determine in which reporter the case was published.  Knowing that information will help you to decide which electronic database to use to retrieve the full text of the court's opinion.  Some older cases may only be available in print.

Use these resources to interpret UK case law citations:

  • Index to Legal Citations and Abbreviations (3rd ed.), Call No. REF K85 .R3 2013
    This print resource for UK legal abbreviations also provides disambiguation for similar or identical abbreviations used in Australia, Canada, South Africa, and other Commonwealth countries.
     
  • Cardiff Index to Legal Abbreviations
    This free, Web-based resource covers legal abbreviations in the UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and other Commonwealth jurisdictions, as well as the United States.
     

Case Law Reporting in the UK

The modern system of case law reporting in the UK dates from 1865. For assistance in locating cases that were reported prior to 1865, consult the Primary Sources page of the English Legal History research guide (scroll down to Case Reports). 

Listed in the table below are the contemporary UK case law reporters that researchers are most likely to encounter, along with their corresponding citation formats.

Name of Reporter Description Citation Format
The Law Reports This quasi-official series, published since 1865 by the Incorporated Council for Law Reporting (ICLR) for England and Wales, is widely regarded as the most authoritative.   The Law Reports is currently divided into four sub-series.  (See the following table for details.) party names, [year], sub-series abbreviation, page.
The Weekly Law Reports This series, also published by ICLR, appears each week in paperback.  Section 1 includes cases deemed worthy of being reported, even though they do not raise any new points of law.  Section 2 includes cases of greater significance that eventually will be re-published in The Law Reports. party names, [year], section number (1 or 2), WLR, page.
All England Law Reports This commercially published reporter has broader coverage than The Law Reports.  Most practitioners consider the headnotes to be more helpful than the ones published in The Law Reports. party names, [year], All ER, page.

Note that The Law Reports is divided into four sub-series, which have changed over time.  The current sub-series of The Law Reports, along with their abbreviations, are listed in the table below.  The relevant sub-series abbreviation should be included when citing to a case published in The Law Reports.

Current Sub-Series of The Law Reports (1972-present) Abbreviation Description
Appeals Cases AC Publishes decisions issued by the Supreme Court of the UK and by the Court of Appeal, as well as appellate decisions issued by the High Court of Justice.
Chancery Division Cases Ch Publishes trial level decisions issued by the Chancery Division of the High Court of Justice, which hears cases involving the governance of business entities, insolvency, trust law, and matters of equity.
Queen's Bench Cases
(King's Bench Cases)
QB
(KB)
Publishes trial level decisions issued by the Queen's Bench Division of the High Court of Justice, which hears civil cases in all matters not assigned to the Chancery Division or to the Family Division.  Note that this division is known as the King's Bench (KB) when there is a male monarch.
Family Division Cases Fam Publishes trial level decisions issued by the Family Division of the High Court of Justice, which hears cases involving marriage, children, medical treatment, wills, and probate matters.

In addition to the reporters described above, there are dozens of specialized reporters published by commercial vendors that focus on particular types of cases.  As in the United States, cases often are published in more than one reporter.  Citations should be made to the most authoritative reporter in which a case is published, with a clear preference given to The Law Reports.
 

Subscription Databases 

  • ICLR Online
    This subscription database is maintained by the Incorporated Council of Law Reporting for England and Wales.  Case reports are available for download in PDF format.  For cases whose judgments are not reported in full, ICLR provides summaries of the judgments.

    • Coverage:  ICLR Online includes cases published in:  The Law Reports (1865-present); The Weekly Law Reports (1953-present); The Business Law Reports (company, commercial, and IP law cases); The Industrial Cases Reports (employment, discrimination, and pension cases); and The Public and Third Sector Law Reports (adoption, charity, ecclesiastical, education, and local government cases).

    • Basic Search -- Enter one or more keywords or party names in the search box.  Click on the "Search Help" link for tips on how to construct a search and for a full list Boolean operators, proximity operators, and other search connectors.

    • Full Search -- Select this option to retrieve a case by citation or to limit searches to a specific court, judge or date range.  It is also possible to search by "catchwords," which are subject headings assigned to each case by the ICLR editors. 

    • Citator -- In addition to providing the subsequent appellate history of a case, ICLR's citator identifies all subsequent cases that have cited the court's opinion, as well as prior cases and legislation that are cited within the court's opinion.
       

  • Lexis (All United Kingdom Cases)
    Lexis provides access to cases published in a wide range of commercially published UK case law reporters.  These include the All England Reporter, which offers the broadest coverage; The All England Law Reports (1936-present); the Scottish Civil Law Reports (1982-present); the Northern Ireland Law Reports (1945-present); and dozens of specialized, subject-specific reporters (dates of coverage vary).

  • Westlaw (United Kingdom Resources)
    Westlaw's United Kingdom Cases database includes cases published in dozens of subject-specific case law reporters (dates of coverage vary), as well as historical cases published in The English Reports (covering the period from 1220 to 1865).  Westlaw also offers a UK case law citator (UK Case Law Locator) that will help you to determine if a particular case is still good law.

  • Note that The Law Reports and The Weekly Law Reports are no longer available on Lexis and Westlaw.  If you have a citation to a case published in one of these quasi-official reporters, the best option for retrieving the case on Lexis or on Westlaw is to open the Advanced Search template and search for the names of the parties.  Ask a librarian if you need assistance.
     

Free Electronic Sources

  • British and Irish Legal Information Institute (BAILII)
    BAILII maintains a free online database of UK case law.  Although the interface is not as sleek and user-friendly as that of ICLR Online, the coverage is broader and includes case law from Scotland and Northern Ireland, as well as the Irish Republic, the Court of Justice of the European Union, and the European Court of Human Rights.  The search template supports both keyword and Boolean searching and enables users to restrict searchers to a particular court or date range.  Users also have the option of searching by citation and by party name (title).

  • Supreme Court of the UK
    All judgments rendered by the Supreme Court since its inception in 2009 are freely available for download in PDF format from the Court's website by clicking on the Decided Cases tab.  Cases are arranged by year of decision in reverse chronological order, but it is also possible to search by keyword.  For information about pending cases, click on the Current Cases tab.  Judgments rendered by the Supreme Court's predecessor, the Appellate Committee of the House of Lords (the "Law Lords"), may be accessed from this online archive, which covers the period from 1996-2009.  

  • Courts & Tribunals Website of the UK Judiciary
    The Courts and Tribunals website selectively publishes recent judgments rendered in civil and criminal cases. Both trial court and appellate court judgments are included, and most are available for download in PDF format. Coverage is limited to higher profile cases decided within the last three to four years.
     

  • The Digest:  Annotated British, Commonwealth, and European Cases, Call No. KD296 .E52
    This multi-volume set is the most comprehensive finding aid for UK case law in print.  The current edition is organized by subject and is regularly updated with replacement volumes and cumulative annual supplements.  It includes a subject index and an alphabetical table of cases, which can be used to look up a known case.  The Digest also functions as a citator, as the entry for each case includes information about subsequent case history.
     
  • Current Law Case Citator, Call No. KD296 .C843
    This citator traces the subsequent history and treatment of UK cases decided from 1947 to the present.  Note that cases are arranged alphabetically rather than by citation.