One of the challenging aspects of legal research is the variety of sources of legal information.
In Australia, there are two types of laws:
- Case law: made through the courts and otherwise known as judge-made law, common law, or case law
- Legislation: made through the parliament and otherwise known as acts or statutes.
Case law and legislation are considered primary sources of law because they are the law.
Encyclopaedias, journal articles, books, commentaries etc., are considered secondary sources because they talk about the law.
In legal research, it is often recommended that students approach a topic by looking at secondary sources of law to understand the key issues in that area of law. Secondary sources provide analysis and explanation of the law and state the leading cases or legislation on a topic. Understanding the background of a topic before reading the primary sources (i.e., cases and legislation) can help contextualise your research.
Primary and secondary sources
Primary sources of law are the authoritative sources (sometimes called “authorities”) of law as made by law-making bodies. They include:
- Case law: also known as common law or judge-made law
- Legislation: which includes Acts of Parliament (or Statutes) and subordinate legislation (or delegated legislation).
Secondary sources provide commentary and background information on the primary sources of law and can assist in identifying the relevant primary sources. They may provide you with a quick overview or an in-depth analysis of a topic, with references to leading cases or relevant legislation. They include:
- Legal dictionaries
- Legal encyclopaedias
- Journal articles
- Looseleaf services
- Law reform resources.