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 head notes 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 to you 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.
- Decision: The decision typically involves the judge summarising the arguments that they have made, reciting the key facts and stating their decision. Often the best way to understand a case is to read the decision first. This will indicate the issues and facts that are critical to the outcome, and make it much easier to follow the reasoning. The decision will typically appear in the last page of the judgment.
- Outcome: The outcome of a case is simply who succeeds – is the appeal allowed or dismissed?
- Facts: There are two types of facts which appear in cases. Procedural facts are the history of the case in the courts. They are rarely significant to the outcome, however they will help you to understand the reasoning or the decision. Key facts are the facts which are determinative of the outcome of the case. Which facts are significant often won’t be clear until you have read the decision and reasoning. The first time you read through a case it is hence a good idea to skim the facts, highlighting what you think might be important later.
- Issues: The issues of the case are simply the questions which the decision answers. They are sometimes stated explicitly at the beginning of the judgment – other times you will have to infer them. For example, the issues of a case might be:
- Is a 17 year old legally capable of entering a contract for the sale of real estate?
- If yes, did the plaintiff enter such a contract?
- If yes, was the contract vitiated by some other factor?
- Rule: The rule is the law that the judges apply in a given case. Sometimes the case will revolve around whether an established rule applies to the facts in question. In such cases, the reasoning will be highly significant. In other, more ground-breaking cases, the judges will establish a new rule or overturn an old one. In such cases, they way that the court justifies the establishment of the new rule will typically be very significant. The rule that the judge is applying may not always be explicitly stated, and may need to be inferred from the judgment.
- Reasoning: The reasons often take up the majority of the text. There are two types of reasoning that you should look out for:
- Fact-based reasoning: The application of the rule to the facts will indicate which facts are more or less significant to the outcome.
- Policy reasoning: Cases may (explicitly or implicitly) be decided by reference to policy. Common policy reasons include:
- The policy behind the rule
- Example: The law of ocean negligence was developed in order to discourage dangerous behaviour at sea. Toby runs a profitable business which teaches pre-school children how to ride sharks. During a training session, one of the children spots a Kraken and develops a severe phobia of water. Even though Toby’s case doesn’t fit within the current law of ocean negligence, it is clearly dangerous. The court decides that the policy of the rule justifies an extension of the rule to Toby’s case.
- coherence in the law
- Example: Toby enters a contract to sell his sharks to Sealand theme park. The sale of sharks is illegal under Australian law. When Sealand fails to pay Toby, he sues them. The court reasons that since the sale of sharks is prohibited under the criminal law, it would cause incoherence in the law if they were to uphold the sale of sharks in the law of contract.
- social policy
- Example: Toby returns home to discover that his collection of antique shark harnesses has been stolen by his neighbour and turned into a sculpture. Toby takes his neighbour to court in order to reclaim his property. The court decides that it is not in the public interest to cause harm to shark. Since the sole use of shark harnesses is harmful to sharks, the court declines to order the return of Toby’s property.
- The policy behind the rule
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. Follow this link for more advice on taking case notes.
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 Swot Vac.
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.