Introduction to legal research

5. Legal research strategy

How you approach your research task may vary depending on your research question, however, the approach below works well with legal problem-solving methodologies such as IRAC. 

What is IRAC?

IRAC is a legal problem-solving methodology commonly used in Australian law schools. Researchers using the IRAC method should identify the:

  • Issue — state legal issues that are relevant
  • Rule — state the legal rule found in legislation or case law
  • Application — apply the rules to the facts
  • Conclusion

You can find a description of the IRAC method in A Practical Guide to Legal Research.

Diagram showing the legal research strategy
Diagram of the legal research strategy.

Analyse and plan

Analysing your research question involves identifying the area of law and any relevant legal issues at play. You should pay careful attention, particularly if you are researching a problem-based scenario, to:

  • jurisdiction
  • dates and timeline of events
  • persons involved.

These facts will affect how you formulate your research question, as well as the sources of legal information you will need to consult and which websites and databases.

Research the law

At this stage, you should focus on identifying the legal rules, as found in legislation and case law, because this is what you will need to restate in your writing.

Secondary to primary

When you are new to legal research or unfamiliar with an area of law, proceeding from general information (secondary sources) to more specific, authoritative information (primary sources) is a good approach to use. Secondary sources are written by subject-matter experts who can efficiently lead you to the key authorities you will need to use.

Alternatively, If you feel like you have a good grasp of the area of law and legal principles at play, you may wish to move straight to primary sources to answer your legal question.

Imagine you are researching copyright law in Australia. You have not previously studied this area of law. Given the option of consulting a legal encyclopaedia, or the Copyright Act 1968 (Cth), which option would provide you with a better overview of the topic?
    Check your answer

Update the law

Once you have found your authorities you need to make sure that they are up-to-date. Has the case you are relying on been reversed on appeal? Has the Act and provision you wish to cite been amended recently?

Apply the law

In a positive manner, apply the law to the facts. Use plain English to express your thoughts to indicate the best course of action to take and the likely outcome of taking that course. It is important to:

  • deal separately with each issue specifically raised by the facts
  • refer to the points of law extracted from the various cases, legislation or texts
  • have clarity of reasoning
  • list authorities for and against the argument
  • always reach a conclusion.

Statements setting out principles of law should be supported by authoritative resources, preferably primary sources.