Cases should not be approached in the same way that you would read a book. There are two stages to reading a case – pre-reading and reading. Often you won’t really understand a case until you start writing notes on it, so you may consider note-taking to be another component of the reading process.
The first steps of reading a case require you to get a feel for the judgments.
- First, read the headnotes to get an idea of what the case is about and what the judges are saying.
- Then flip through the case from start to finish. Look at the outcome (generally the last sentence) of each judgment and write it down. Get an idea of how long each judgment is before you begin – this will indicate to you how long you will need to spend on the case and better enable you to manage your time.
- If there is a statute being discussed in the judgment, open a copy of the relevant provisions in AustLII, so that you have them at hand. Now you are ready to approach each judgment in more detail.
For each judgment, you should proceed by:
- Reading the last page or so first, to get an idea of the decision and outcome of the case. This will also indicate the facts or provisions that are significant to the reasoning.
- Flip through the judgment and look at the headings – try to track the progression of the argument that the judge is making.
Now you are ready to attack the case.
Reading the Case
There are six crucial components of any given judgment: facts, issues, rules, decision, outcome and reasons. Distinguishing between these components will greatly aid your comprehension of the case, and make it easier to write notes on it later.
Click on each component below to learn more about what to look for while you’re reading cases.
As you read, analyse the case critically. Think about:
- What policy considerations (whether stated or not) are underlying the reasoning. Pay attention to when the decision was made, as different considerations (particularly in terms of social policy) are significant in different eras.
- Whether the reasoning is logically sound. Do you agree with all the premises of the judgment? Do the arguments follow through logically? Can you think of a scenario where this reasoning wouldn’t make sense?
As you read cases, it is a good idea to annotate them as you go. This can help improve your understanding by focusing your attention on certain parts of the case. It is important to be able to distinguish between the different components of the case, so try to use different colours or symbols to distinguish between them. Annotating the cases will significantly help your understanding if you have to re-read a case, and is hugely useful when writing an essay or exam.
Taking Notes on Cases
You should take case notes as close as possible to reading through the case – this will consolidate your memory and understanding of the case and allow you to get a lot more out of classes. Many students use a ‘case note template’ to take notes on cases. Click here to download an example.
Organising your cases into a structure will substantially improve your understanding of not only individual cases, but the entire legal framework that you are working with. Most people don’t start this organising process until the end of semester, prior to exams. This is a mistake – the earlier you begin, the better you will understand the subject, the more you will be able to get out of class discussions and revision sessions, and the less stressed you will be during the pre-exam period.
Speed reading can be a good way to approach a case for the first time. For some more information on speed reading, see this post.