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section heading icon     legal databases

This page considers 'sources of the law', ie online and offline collections of statutes and court reports.

It covers -

A standard reference work for citations is Australian Guide to Legal Citation 2 ed (Melbourne: Melbourne Uni Law Review Association 2002).

subsection heading icon     statutes and delegated legislation

Statute law is law made by legislatures, often characterised as 'Acts of Parliament'.

Specialists often differentiate between statutes or primary legislation (the text of which has been directly considered by the particular legislature and specifically approved by that legislature) and 'secondary' or 'delegated' legislation. Secondary legislation is an administrative convenience, reliant for its authority on primary legislation. It may comprise regulations, ordinances, rules, by-laws and orders-in-council.

Australian statutes typically comprise the following elements -

  • Short Title of the Act
  • Year and Number of the Act (or Reprint No)
  • Long title
  • Date of Assent (or Reprint Date)
  • Commencement
  • Preamble
  • Table of Provisions
  • Headings of Chapters, Parts, Divisions and Subdivisions
  • Sections (and sub-sections and paragraphs)
  • Marginal Notes
  • Schedules
  • Legislative History (identifying amendments)

Their interpretation can often be assisted through scrutiny of the associated Second Reading Speech (ie an explanation made in Parliament and available in the Hansard) and Explanatory Memorandum or Explanatory Statement for the particular statute.

Statutes are typically cited using the short title (including the year of enactment), the jurisdiction (in brackets) and specific sections/subsections, eg -

Acts Interpretation Act 1901 (Cth)
Sex Discrimination Act 1984
Privy Council (Limitation of Appeals) Act 1968 (Cth)
Crimes Act 1900 (NSW) s19A
Ex-Servicemen's Badges Act 1967 (Tas) s3

Statute law in Australia is Crown Copyright, with legislatures generally taking a relaxed attitude to reproduction on a commercial or noncommercial basis.

subsection heading icon     court reports

Court reports (aka case reports) are written records of the decisions by the magistrate or judge/s in cases heard by those courts. In essence a particular report provides an indication of what decision was made (eg a defendant was found guilty of a crime) and the basis for that decision (eg the judge heard particular arguments, was presented with particular evidence, applied relevant statute law or relied on precedent in common law).

The decisions of all major courts and many minor courts are published as collections that have an official or quasi-official status (ie are relied on by lawyers and by courts). That publication may be undertaken on a commercial or not-for-profit basis, with the publisher 'adding value' through inclusion of cross-references, summaries or keywords (typically in the 'headnotes' at the beginning of the reports), paragraph numbering and so forth.

It is important to recognise that not all decisions are reported. A report does not provide a transcript of everything that was said and all documentation that was submitted by lawyers during the course of a trial.

A court report will typically provide the reader with -

  • standard citation details, including the name of the court, the year of the decision, the name of the parties
  • place and date of the hearing and judgment
  • name of the judge/s or magistrate
  • catchwords (aka keywords)
  • a concise prose summary in a headnote at the beginning of the report
  • names of barristers representing the parties
  • a statement of the reasons for the court's decision
  • citation of statutes and cases relied upon by the court in making its decision
  • a statement of any formal order by the court (eg that specific damages and costs were awarded)

Major collections for Australian law are -

  • CLR - Commonwealth Law Reports
  • ALR - Australian Law Reports
  • A Crim R - Australian Crim Reports
  • FLC - Australian Family Law Cases
  • Fam LR - Family Law Reports
  • FCR - Federal Court Reports
  • FLR - Federal Law Reports
  • AILR - Australian Industrial Law Reports
  • ATC - Australian Tax Cases
  • NSWLR - New South Wales Law Reports
  • SR (NSW) - NSW State Reports
  • Qd R - Queensland Law Reports
  • SASR - South Australian State Reports
  • Tas R - Tasmanian Reports
  • VR - Victorian Reports
  • WAR - Western Australian Reports

Court reports were traditionally published in series of printed volumes, typically in chrological order and with a volume number. Most are now available online; major databases are discussed below.

Individual cases may be reported in one or more reports. They are typically cited using the -

  • case name
  • year
  • volume
  • report series (abbreviated)
  • page

with the case name comprising identification of the plaintiff/prosecutor, a 'v' (read as 'and' in civil cases or 'against' in criminal cases) and the defendant name, eg

Dietrich v The Queen (1992) 177 CLR 292
James Hardie & Co Pty Ltd v Hall (1998) 43 NSWLR 544

subsection heading icon     Australian legal databases

For Australia a jump-off point is AustLII, a national not-for-profit legal database covering legislation, court and tribunal decisions and some journals.

Oz Netlaw, "the internet legal practice of the Communications Law Centre", is of lesser value.

subsection heading icon     overseas databases

AustLII spawned -

the British & Irish Legal Information Institute (Bailii) site, which now covers all primary legal material from Britain and Ireland that is freely available to the public (eg UK statutes from 1988 to 2001)

the Hong Kong Legal Information Institute (HKLII) site, with Judgments (approximately 10,000 in full text) from the Court of Final Appeal, Court of Appeal, Court of First Instance, District Court, Family Court and Lands Tribunal; Practice Directions; current Ordinances; Domain name arbitration decisions by the Hong Kong International Arbitration Centre and the Hong Kong Treaties Index.

For the US the WashLaw Web and FeedLaw are of particular value.

In September 2002 the New Zealand government belatedly launched a legislation site.

subsection heading icon     statutory interpretation

Salient enactments regarding statutory interpretation are -

  • Acts Interpretation Act 1901 (Cth) | here
  • Legislation Act 2001 (ACT) | here
  • Interpretation Act 1987 (NSW) | here
  • Interpretation Act (NT) | here
  • Acts Interpretation Act 1954 (Qld) | here
  • Acts Interpretation Act 1915 (SA) | here
  • Acts Interpretation Act 1931 (Tas) | here
  • Interpretation of Legislation Act 1984 (Vic) | here
  • Interpretation Act 1984 (WA) | here

Major works include Statutory Interpretation in Australia (Chatswood: Butterworths 2001) by Dennis Pearce & Robert Geddes, Legislation and statutory interpretation (Chatswood: Butterworths 2008) by Kath Hall & Claire Macken.

Among works on Explanatory Memoranda see ''Was there an EM?': explanatory memoranda and explanatory statements in the Commonwealth Parliament' (Canberra: Australian Parliament 2005) by Patrick O'Neill, online here.

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version of December 2008
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