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UQ LibraryWalter Harrison Law LibraryLegal Research Guide Legal Research


Step 1. Analyse the Problem

Legal problems do not always fit into definite areas of law, such as contract law or
criminal law. Sometimes more than one area of law can be involved in a legal
problem. These steps will help you classify the problem:
Analyse the facts of the case
Decide what legal issues they represent.
It is important to research the legal principles involved rather than the facts of the
case. This will ensure that your search is focussed upon legally relevant material.

Planning a Search Strategy

The more care and thought you put into your search strategy, the more relevant
your search results will be. As a result, you will also save time.

What are you actually looking for? For example: a case, a piece of
legislation, a journal article.

Which resources will help you find what you are after? For example: a
database, digest, the legal research guide etc.

What are the parameters/boundaries of your search? Think about which

jurisdictions are relevant and how far back in time you wish to look.

Which search terms will you use and how will you combine them to give
you the best results?

Planning Steps

Step 1. Identify the key concepts in the problem. These become your
search words. Remember, you need to research the legal issuesnot the
facts of the case.

Step 2. Consider synonyms and related terms.

Think laterally. Use a legal dictionary or encyclopaedia to find alternate
words with the same meaning. Legal dictionaries and encyclopaedias will
provide you with a basic overview of the legal issue and give you an
understanding of the vocabulary before you start to research. They will
also indicate where you will need to look for answers, by identifying key
cases, legislation and commentaries.
Step 3. Construct a search query using Boolean operators (such as
AND, OR) and where relevant other search options such as truncation,
wildcards, phrase searching and brackets (nesting).

Search Options


liability and tort

finds both words in the same



slander or libel

finds either word in same


bankruptcy not

finds records which mention

the first word but not second.

Boolean Logic NOT


"duty of care"

forces the database to search

a string of words as a phrase.


circumstances /s

retrieves records which have

both words in the same

defendant /p bail

retrieves records which have

both words in the same

market /5 share

retrieves words which appear

with 'n' (in this instance 5)
words of each other.

filing pre/5 bankrupt!

retrieves first word within 'n'

words of second keyword in
the order specified.

Lexis, LexisNexis AU
and Westlaw use !;
other databases *

searches for alternate endings

of words eg. negligen!
retrieves negligence,
negligent, negligently.

Lexis, LexisNexis AU
and Westlaw use *;
other databases ?

replaces a single character eg.

defen*e retrieves defense,

(World trade organi?

ation OR WTO) and
intellectual property.

use brackets when your

search strategy contains more
than one Boolean operator.
Place the synonyms in

Note: these
vary across



and Wildcards Truncation
Note: symbols
vary across



Try out the Search Strategy Builder using Boolean logic, from the University of
Arizona Library or download our search strategy planner which will help you to
properly map out your search.

Step 2. Research the Law

Proceeding from general information (secondary sources) to more specific,
authoritative information (primary sources) is a good approach to use.

Secondary sources of law consist of material that provides commentary and

background information on the primary sources of law or assist in locating the law.
They may provide you with a quick overview or an in depth analysis of the general
law relating to a topic, with references to leading cases or relevant legislation. They








Primary sources of law are the authoritative sources of law as made by law
making bodies. They include:

Case Law, also known as Common Law or Judge-made Law

in Australia and overseas
Legislation, also referred to as Acts of Parliament or Statutes and
Subordinate Legislation or Delegated Legislation.

Methodically recording the materials you have found and the research steps you
took to get there means you won't have to repeat searches or search again
resources that you've already searched.

Read and Evaluate

Acts and cases can be difficult to interpret. Remember that secondary sources such
as journal articles and textbooks, and related materials (such as bills, second
reading speeches, and explanatory memorandum) may help further develop your
understanding of the law.

Learning how to critically evaluate is an essential skill for law students. You will
require extensive knowledge and understanding of the topic and the legal issues
involved to write analytically. Detailed analysis of the law is required to critically
examine and synthesise opinions, arguments, facts and evidence and to formulate
an argument which relates back to your particular problem or scenario.

On a continual basis you should evaluate your research methodology. Be flexible.

Consider alternative approaches and refining your search topic.

The law is constantly changing. As a result it is important to update the law, which
is historically referred to as noting up.

This involves determining:

Whether a case is still good law.

To do this, use a Case Citator to research the judicial history of the case
(how the case has been treated by later cases). It is important to
determine whether a later case has doubted, disapproved, overruled,
distinguished or not followed your case. Definitions of case annotations
are available here.

Whether an Act has been recently amended.

Whether an Act (or a section of the Act) has been judicially

considered (interpreted in the courts). Case Citators, TimeBase
LawOne and looseleaf services can help you with this.

When is it time to stop researching the law?

It is time to stop searching when:

The commentary becomes repetitive.

You have read the same point in a number of sources.

You notice that the same cases/legislation/articles keep appearing.

You have discovered updated primary authority and must revise your

Step 3. Apply the Law

In a positive manner apply the law to the facts. Using plain English to express your
thoughts, you will need to indicate the best course of action to take and the likely
outcome of taking that course.

Deal separately with each issue specifically raised by the facts.

Refer to the points of law extracted from the various cases, legislation or

List authorities for and against the argument.

Always reach a conclusion.

Statements setting out principles of law should be supported by authoritative

resources, preferably primary sources. Secondary sources may be cited, if