Introduction to legal research

3. Sources of legal information

One of the challenging aspects of legal research is the variety of sources of legal information. As you progress through these modules, you will learn more about the different sources of information as well as the key websites and databases needed to access them.

  The Legal Research Guide contains links to key databases, tools, and websites for legal research.

As a starting point, however, it is important for you to know the distinction between primary and secondary sources.

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 — includes Acts of Parliament (or Statutes) and subordinate legislation (or delegated legislation).

When asserting a particular proposition is settled law, you should use primary sources rather than secondary sources. Where the law is unclear or in dispute, you may use secondary sources to support an argument in favour of one proposition or another (TC Beirne School of Law, A Guide to the Citation of Sources in Assignments (2010) 2).

Secondary sources provide commentary and background information on the primary sources of law or 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
  • Books
  • Journal articles
  • Looseleaf services
  • Law reform resources.
You discover a newspaper article about a recent court case and wish to cite the article. Are newspaper articles considered to be primary sources of law? 
    Check your answer