Queen's University - Utility Bar

Queen's University Library

Law Reports


The "law" on a given subject is found not only in statutes and regulations but also in the judicial decisions of courts. Finding cases which are "on point"--i.e., which have a similar fact situation and legal issue--can be challenging and, on occasion, a more time-consuming and circuitous process than locating statutory provisions.

The primary source for cases in print are law reporters. These publications report cases selectively, and their editors usually determine which cases to publish based on whether the case deals with an emerging trend in the law or a point of law which has not yet been resolved. Many cases remain "unreported," which means that they have not been published in a law reporter. These cases are often included in the databases of an electronic service such as WestlawNext Canada or LexisNexis Quicklaw or the free database CanLII (newer cases are more likely to be available than older cases). If unreported cases are not in an electronic service, they can be retrieved by requesting them from the court at which they were heard. Electronic services like WestlawNext Canada and LexisNexis Quicklaw contain certain law report series which are otherwise available in print.


Law book publishers obtain copies of judgments as soon as the reasons are prepared by the judges and filed with the court authorities. The judgments are reviewed and divided by subject, area, and court. The judgments are then sent to the editors of the individual law report series. The editor of the series decides which cases will be included for publication. Cases which extend a legal principle, clarify a controversial point of law, or contain a particularly good discussion of existing law are often reported while cases which the editor considers to be "routine" are left out.

The headnotes are written by the editors. The headnote is a summary of the facts and issues. It summarizes the judge's reasons for deciding the issues a particular way. It also lists the sources -- cases, statutes, regulations, texts and articles -- cited in the case. It may provide subject key words or "catch lines", which are often printed in paragraph format with em-dashes separating the phrases. Headnotes for the same case can vary greatly among different law reports since they are written by the individual report editors.

The editor generally corrects spelling or grammar in the judgment but makes no substantive changes without the judge's permission. The evidence and the arguments for each side only appear insofar as they are summarized in the judgment. Some law report series also include annotations or case comments. These are short articles written by academics or lawyers to highlight the significance of the case and to provide critical independent analysis.

Finally, the editor sends the manuscript of the case report back to the publishing company for the layout and printing of the reports. Most series first publish reports in unbound (paperback) form as advance sheets. Hard-cover (bound) volumes subsequently incorporate the cases reported in the advance sheets and the subject index, tables, etc. are consolidated for that volume. Some report series publish cumulative tables of cases and subject indexes in separate volumes which cover several years. These index volumes can be used in conjunction with secondary sources to locate material on a given legal topic when preparing a factum or legal memo.

Canadian law reports can be national, regional or provincial in their coverage. For example, the Dominion Law Reports (DLR) contain cases of note from across the country while the Ontario Reports (OR) cover only cases from Ontario. There are also many subject-specific or topical reports, such as the Canadian Human Rights Reporter (CHRR), Business Law Reports (BLR), Canadian Criminal Cases (CCC), Canadian Environmental Law Reports (CELR)).  Topical reports have risen in number with the increased specialization of lawyers.

Report series are classified as official, semi-official and unofficial:

  • Official reports are authorized by the court whose decisions they report ( Supreme Court Reports, Federal Court Reports, etc.).
  • Semi-Official reports are published by commercial law publishers (often under the auspices of a Law Society) but have a measure of authority nonetheless through custom and practice ( Ontario Reports, Nova Scotia Reports, etc.).
  • Unofficial reports are unauthorized publications by private organizations.

A list of official and semi-official reporters can be found in Appendix C of the McGill Guide (KE259.C35 2010 Reference or Reserve).

There is little logic to the case reporting system in Canada. There can be, at times, extensive duplication among report series (i.e., the same case may be reported in several law report series, with a slightly different headnote supplied by the various case editors) depending on the level of court and the interest in the case.  At present, there are dozens of law report series in Canada, and the same Supreme Court case might appear in close to a dozen different reports.

Different report series offer a profusion of indexing services which often overlap with each other. Law reports published by the same publisher have uniform indexing features which often make research more convenient. This means that vocabulary is consistent--if you are researching "firing" in the employment context, that concept will probably not be described as "termination" or "downsizing" elsewhere by the same publisher, even though a different publisher might choose to use those terms to describe the same idea.

Neutral Citation

Since 1999, many Canadian courts have begun assigning neutral citations to their judgments. It is usually the first citation after the style of cause (name of the case) and before any citations to reporters. It is only a case identifier. It consists of three parts:

  • year of decision
  • abbreviation of the court
  • an ordinal number

For example, Lovelace v Ontario has the neutral citation 2000 SCC 37:

Year of decision Court Ordinal Number
2000 SCC 37
  Supreme Court of Canada 37th case decided in 2000

Parallel Citation

The fact that some reports are official while others are semi-official and others still are unofficial is important for the citation of "parallel reports." For example, the 2006 Supreme Court of Canada case Childs v Desormeaux is reported at:

2006 SCC 18
[2006] 1 SCR 643
30 MVR (5th) 1
266 DLR (4th) 257
39 CCLT (3d) 163
347 NR 328
210 OAC 315
80 OR (3d) 558

This is the same case reported in a number of different report series. Anyone wishing to refer to this case would refer to the neutral citation first (if available) in addition to the official citation, then the semi-official (if the case had not been reported in an official report series) and finally, one of the unofficial reports (if the case had not appeared in an official or semiofficial reporter). Unofficial reports are normally cited in the following order: general reports are cited ahead of subject reports, and reports covering larger geographical areas are cited ahead of smaller geographical areas. This order of citing reports is preferred, but it is not always followed religiously.

In recent years, there has been a growth in decisions of administrative boards and tribunals. Publication of these decisions varies from formal publication to restricted availability depending on the tribunal. The more frequently used series are listed below together with the law reports.


As a common law jurisdiction, we rely on the legal principle of stare decisis ("let the decision stand") whereby a higher level court decision on a legal matter established a principle which must, as a rule, be followed by lower level courts in that jurisdiction. The term "decision" refers to the final concluding reasons of a judge on a particular case -- the arguments of counsel for the opposing sides and other trial documentation are not part of the decision.

To ascertain whether a decision is still authoritative, two steps are always necessary. First, researchers must determine whether the judgment has been overturned on appeal or reversed in part -- in other words, they must verify the complete history of the case. Second, researchers must determine how widely and in what way the case has been considered by the courts since being handed down. This is known as obtaining the treatment information. Both of these together are known as "noting up."

There's no shortage of reported case law for Canadian jurisdictions -- the challenge lies in using the appropriate sources to conduct a thorough search that provides an up-to-date picture of the legal status of a particular issue or problem.

Noting up can be done online through WestlawNext Canada using KeyCite Canada (looking at both the history of a case and citing references).  On LexisNexis, noting up is done using QuickCITE.

In print, noting up is done using Canadian Case Citations which makes up part of the Canadian Abridgment.



Typically a published case consists of the following sections: 

Style of Cause: e.g., R v Casarello -- the names of the parties to the legal dispute.  In a civil case the plaintiff or "initiator" is named first; in criminal cases the "R" representing Rex or Regina for King or Queen [i.e., the State] comes first.

Preliminary information: Following the style of cause, preliminary information including the court name, the judge(s) who heard the case, and the date of the decision's release are given.Catchlines: Catchlines are phrases and key words separated by dashes that describe the legal issues as well as the facts of the case reported.

Headnote: This is a short (or not so short, depending on the complexity of the case) summary of the facts, issues and reasons for the decision rendered. Note that the headnote is not part of the decision proper--it is written by editors of the law reporter and not by the court or judge.

Authorities referred to: The cases, statutes and secondary sources consulted or referred to in the decision are listed next. This provides a quick overview of sources consulted in the course of writing the judgment.

History of the case: If this is not the first hearing of the case, the prior history will be given.

Decision(s): The decisions or written reasons of the judge(s) who heard the case appear following all of the preliminary information.


Existing side-by-side with case reporters are digesting services that provide summaries of cases and a way in which to discover the existence of many more unreported cases. Although the advent of electronic databases and web sites has diminished their importance, digest services are still used to access cases before and even after publication of the full decision. A "digest" is a short concise summary of the court decision made soon after its release. Some digest services provide an order service whereby one can obtain the full text of the decision from the digest publisher. The most commonly used digest services are:

  • All Canada Weekly Summaries (published in print and online in Criminal Spectrum* and BestCase*, published by Canada Law Book)

  • Weekly Criminal Bulletin (WCB) (in print and online in BestCase* and Criminal Spectrum*, published by Canada Law Book)

  • Lawyers' Weekly case digests (in print and online on LexisNexis Quicklaw

  • Canadian Case Summaries, also known as the Dominion Report Service (online database digest service of LexisNexis Quicklaw)

  • Canadian Abridgment case digests (print and electronically via WestlawNext Canada)

  • Canada Digests (electronically via LexisNexis Quicklaw)

[*Queen's doesn't have a subscription to these services.]

Summaries in all of these services are not as detailed as most of the headnote summaries which preface the decision in law reports, but they can inform you whether or not the case is on point and worth consulting in full text.


The following lists the major report series. It is not a complete list. Many older series and some less frequently used series are not listed.

National Reports

Dominion Law Reports (DLR)
Federal Court Reports (FCR)
Federal Trial Reports (FTR)
National Reporter (NR)
Supreme Court Reports (SCR)

Regional Reports

Atlantic Provinces Reports (APR)
Eastern Law Reporter (East)
Maritime Provinces Reports (MPR)
Western Weekly Reports (WWR)



  • Indexes to Subject Law Reports (print)

  • Loose-leaf Services & Annotated Statutes (print)

  • LexisNexis Quicklaw (online) - contains the contents of printed law reporters such as the Ontario Reports, Supreme Court Reports, and the Canadian Native Law Reporter. LexisNexis Quicklaw also has its own judgment databases that include many unreported judgments.
  • WestlawNext Canada (online) - contains the LawSource database--a general database of cases and legislation in addition to the fulltext Canadian Abridgment and Canadian Encyclopedic Digest. Also contains topical databases: CriminalSource, FamilySource, InsolvencySource, and SecuritiesSource. Westlaw Canada also has its own judgment databases that include many unreported judgments.
  • BestCase (online - Queen's does not have a subscription) - contains Canada Law Book's law reports, including Dominion Law Reports, Canadian Criminal Cases, Labour Arbitration Cases, and a collection of unreported decisions.


A. Nominate Reports (pre-1865)

Prior to 1865, cases were reported by private court reporters. There were hundreds of reports series produced under their individual names (e.g. Keen, Barnewall and Adolphus, etc.), hence the term "nominate." However, the reports varied greatly in quality. Few law libraries possess a complete collection of these reports even though many of the principles enunciated in these cases continue to be cited today.

For convenience, these nominate reports have been collected and reprinted in three different series:

  • English Reports (ER);
  • Revised Reports (RR);
  • selected cases in the All England Law Reports Reprint (All ER Rep).

The English Reports series is regarded as the most authoritative source. The Revised Reports reprint only selected cases from certain nominate reporters from 1785-1866.

Finding cases in the Nominate Reports where:

a) You have the case name only: e.g. Boutts v Ellis

In Print: Use the Table of Cases in the English Reports, the Revised Reports, the All ER Rep, or even a more general source like The Digest. Thus, if you have the case name of Boutts v Ellis, you can determine that it is reported in 43 ER 502 by using the Table of Cases to the English Reports.

Online: The English Reports are freely available from CommonLII or Hein Online (via subscription). Type your case name into the search box. 

b) You have the Nominate citation only: e.g. 4 De G M & G 249

In Print:

1. Full lists of the nominate reports, their various abbreviations, and in which ER or RR volumes they are reprinted, can be found in Raistrick's Index to Legal Citations and Abbreviations (KD400 .R35 2008 Reference or Reserve) or in Osborn's Concise Law Dictionary (KD313 .O82 2001). The same list also is reproduced in The Ontario Legal Desk Book (KEO148 .L43 Reference).  Online a list may be found at Lancaster University Library.

This list of nominate reports is the central research tool to find reports of nominate cases.

2. From this list you could determine that De G M & G stands for De Gex, M'Naghten and Gordon Reports; that it reports Chancery cases, and consists of 8 volumes from 1851-1857. The volumes of ER (English Reports) or RR (Revised Reports) reprint this series. In this example, volumes 42-44 of the English Reports reprint De G M & G.

3. Locate volumes 42 to 44 of the English Reports. The page numbers on the inside top corner correspond to the original pagination of De G M & G. Flip through the pages until you find 4 De G M & G 249. The dark bold face numbers in square brackets interspersed throughout each page correspond to the original De G M & G pagination. Locate [249] and you have found your case, Boutts v Ellis.

Online: Hein Online contains the English Reports. Type your citation into the search box.

NOTE: Citation of Nominate Reports - The nominate citation should always be included in the complete citation, as follows:

Boutts v Ellis (1853), 4 De G M & G 249, 43 ER 502 (Ch).

B.  The Law Reports (LR)

In 1865, the Incorporated Council of Law Reporting began to produce a semiofficial series of reports called The Law Reports, and the nominate reports came to an end. There was a series in the LR for each court in the English System which existed in 1865. The Judicature Act of 1873 reduced the number of courts to six with a corresponding drop in the number of LR series. A further reduction in 1881 brought the number to four.

The components of the Law Reports series have varied since 1865 as a result of the court changes (see the list appended below). Currently, the LRs consist of: Appeal Cases, Queen's Bench, Chancery, and Family Division (these last two series are published in the same paper parts but are later bound separately).

Extra services have also been added over the years. There is a series of Digests which contain summaries of all cases reported in the Law Reports from 1865 to 1950. Each case is cited with parallel citations. There are indexes of the cases by name and tables of statutes and cases that were considered in any of the decisions reported between 1865 and 1950 in the Law Reports.

Since 1951 the Digest has been replaced by the Law Reports Index. This index is published every ten years. A separate cumulative index is issued every year which covers from the cut-off point of the last ten year Index up to the end of last year. Each index contains a list of cases reported in the Law Reports with parallel citations included. There is an index of cases by subject matter, and there are tables of statutes and cases judicially considered. To keep the series current there are cumulative indexes published as paper parts every four months.

The Law Reports are also available on Justis.com and LexisNexis Quicklaw.  

List of the Law Reports series:

 In the following list of the various Law Reports components, the citations appear in parenthesis after the name of the series. Note that up to 1875 the letters LR appear in the citation but after 1875 only the abbreviation for the series is used. At first the volumes of each series were numbered, but from 1891 the volumes are cited by year. If there is more than one volume in a year in a series, the year is followed by a volume number. In the list, dots (...) indicate the place where the volume number would be in the citation. The year would appear in the square brackets and the page number would follow the abbreviated name of the series in the citation (i.e. [1967] 2 QB means the second volume of the Queens Bench reports for 1967). The page number would follow the letters QB.

Chancery Appeal Cases   (LR...Ch or Ch App) 1865-75 v.1-10
Equity Cases            (LR...Eq)    1865-75 v.1-20
Chancery Division       (...ChD)  1875-90 v.1-45
Chancery Division       ([ ] Ch)    1891-date by year
Common Pleas Cases      (LR...CP)   1865-75 v.1-10
Common Pleas Division   (...CPD)  1875-80 v.1-5
Exchequer Cases         (LR...Ex)   1865-75 v.1-10
Exchequer Division      (...Ex D)    1875-80 v.1-5
Queen's Bench Cases     (LR...QB)        1865-75 v.1-10
Queen's Bench Division  (...QBD)    1875-90 v.1-25
Queen's Bench Division  ([ ] QB)     1891-1900 by year
 King's Bench Division   ([ ] KB)    1901-1952 by year
Queen's Bench Division  ([ ] QB)   1952-date by year
Probate & Divorce Cases (LR...P & D)    1865-75 v.1-3
Admiralty &   Ecclesiastical Cases    (LR...A & E)    1865-75 v.1-4
Probate Division        (...PD)   1875-90 v.1-15
Probate Division        ([ ] P)    1891-1971 by year
Family Division         ([ ] Fam)     1972-date by year
Crown Cases Reserved    (LR...CC Or CCR)  1865-76 v.1,2
English & Irish Appeals  (LR...HL)       1866-75 v.1-7
Scotch & Divorce Appeals(LR...HLSc Or LR...HLSc and Div)  1865-75 v.1-2
Privy Council Appeals   (LR...PC)     1865-75 v.1-6
Appeal Cases            (...App Cas         )  1875-90 v.1-15
Appeal Cases             ([ ] AC)         1891-date by year 

C.  The All England Reports (All ER)

This series began in 1936 and is the most widely accepted commercial series in England (there is also a separate All ER Reprint Series reporting important cases from 1558-1935). The All ER is published weekly, in paper parts, which are later reissued as bound volumes. "Consolidated Tables and Index" volumes are printed every few years and updated by "Cumulative Tables and Index" volumes. These indexes contain Tables of Cases and Statutes Considered in decisions reported by the All ER, as well as a Subject Index.

Separate Canadian Supplement volumes (1936-1976; 1977-1987) cite Canadian cases which have judicially considered English cases initially reported in the All ER.  There is also a looseleaf volume of Canadian annotations to the consolidated tables and index.  

D.  Electronic Databases of U.K. Caselaw

Justis.com : The Law Reports, The Weekly Law Reports, The Times Law Reports, and English Reports.
LexisNexis Quicklaw: full text access to U.K. case law, including All ER Reprints and The Law Reports.
WestlawNext Canada: full text access to U.K. case law, including Civil Procedure Law Reports series, Criminal Appeal Reports, Entertainment and Media Law Reports, Environmental Law Reports, Fleet Street Reports, Human Rights Law Reports, Landlord and Tenant Reports, Lloyd's List Law Reports, Lloyd's Law Reports, Personal Injuries and Quantum Reports, Reports of Patent Cases, and Scots Law Times series.

Last Updated: 26 August 2014

Footer Links

Kingston, Ontario, Canada.