Case law

1. What is case law?

A case, often referred to as a decision or judgment, is a written record of a judge or judges reasoning or decision-making applied to a particular dispute. In deciding cases, judges interpret legislation and also apply the doctrine of precedent (stare decisis), which means the court must follow the decisions reached by a higher court in the same jurisdiction. For this reason, case law has precedential value and is sometimes known as common law or judge-made law.

Case law is a primary source of law in Australia.

Anatomy of a case

Understanding the different parts of a case is helpful for case law research. The annotation below shows some of the key parts of a case.

Annotated image of a case, showing parts
Select the image to view a larger version.

At the very top of the decision you will find information including the:

  • party names
  • court
  • judge/s
  • hearing date/s


The headnote of the decision contains catchwords and a summary of the case. Catchwords are keywords and phrases, separated by dashes, summarising the legal principles and legislation discussed in the case. The summary provides a short description of the matter and outlines the key holdings of the case.

The headnote is not officially part of the judgment.


The start of the judgment proper is usually indicated by the Judge's surname (e.g. Stanley J: ...). Each judgment will generally include:

  • the procedural history of the case
  • statement of facts
  • relevant legal issues and legal principles
  • conclusion
  • order.

You will learn how to undertake a case analysis and distinguish the ratio decidendi as part of your legal studies.

You may be tempted to only read and quote from the headnote rather than the full decision. It is important to note that the headnote is written by a law reporter and not by a judge. Therefore, it is not considered to be part of the judgment.

Graduate attributes

Knowledge and skills you can gain from this module will contribute to your Graduate Attributes:

 Accomplished scholars

 Influential communicators