Legal Research Basics

Last Reviewed: March 2023 Reviewed by: JES Download

Legal Research Basics

Identify the Issues

The first step in legal research is to identify all the questions you need answers to. Almost certainly you will have more than one issue. For example, you may have a procedural question (What Court do I need to file this with?), an evidence question (Can I rely on my recording of a conversation with the defendant?), and a substantive question (Can I get money if the other side lied to get me to sign a contract?). Before you start your research, try to think of all the issues you are unsure of.

Search for relevant Cases

Researching case law is hard and time consuming. However, it is a necessary part of good research.

You should have two goals in searching for relevant cases.

  1. Find the most important, leading, cases in the area: There are certain cases that come up again and again, because they set out the key ideas in an area of law. They are often going to be decisions of the Supreme Court of Canada or the British Columbia Court of Appeal. If you see a case that is mentioned many times when doing your research, you should think about reading that carefully.
  2. Find cases with facts similar to your: You also want to see what has happened in cases that are most similar to your. Think about what makes your case unique. Then look for cases with a similar situation. 

CanLII is a free case law database you can use. When searching for cases on CanLII or another database, you will need to use a specific way of entering in search terms. For example:

  • Phrase search (""): To search for a phrase, you can group words by typing them between quotes, for example: "Duty of care". To search for a phrase with exact words – and avoid retrieving variations of the words contained in the phrase – use the EXACT operator: EXACT ("Duty of care").
  • Boolean search (AND, OR, NOT): To perform a search that combines or excludes terms, use the AND, OR and NOT operators, between your query terms (Or ET, OU and NON – the operators work in both languages), for example: warranty AND sale OR buy NOT car.

The University of Ottawa has prepared a helpful guide on how to do Boolean searching which is available here. CanLII has also prepared a guide aimed at helping use its search function, which is available here

Read the Relevant Statutes and Regulations

If there are statutes or regulations that cover your case, review them carefully. Often more than one section of a statute or regulation will matter. If you read only one part of the statute, you may miss something important. It may not be possible to read every word of a dense and long statute, but at least look through the table of contents to make sure that you are aware of what is in there.

Keep Notes of Your Research

Take notes as you go. It is hard to remember all of the important things you come across during a long legal research process. Further, you may want to write down the books and resources you have reviewed. It is possible that your court case may take a very long time, and you may forget where you got information from when it comes time to present it to the Court.

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