Canadian Legal Research Blog
The Best Guide to Canadian Legal Research has been freely available on the Internet since 1998. The original author and publisher was Catherine Best. The site grew out of Catherine’s experience teaching legal research and writing, and her conviction that a process-based analytic approach was needed. She was also motivated to help researchers learn to effectively use electronic research tools.
Catherine Best retired In 2015 and she generously donated the site to CanLII to use as our legal research guide going forward. Best says: “The world of legal research is dramatically different than it was in 1998. However, the site’s emphasis on research process and effective electronic research continues to fill a need. It will be fascinating to see what changes the next 15 years will bring.”
The site will be maintained and expanded by a national editorial board of legal researchers.
The editorial board
Melanie Bueckert is Legal Research Counsel with the Manitoba Court of Appeal in Winnipeg. She has written several legal textbooks, teaches Advanced Legal Research at the University of Manitoba’s Faculty of Law, and is also a contributor to Slaw.ca.
Maryvon Côté is Acting Head at the Nahum Gelber Law Library at McGill University in Montreal. He is active on the Canadian Association of Law Libraries executive and writes on legal research topics.
Yasmin Khan is the Head Librarian at the City of Toronto Law Library. She has just finished a Master’s of Science, Information and Knowledge Strategy from Columbia University.
Mandy Ostick is the Manager, Library Services at Bull Housser in Vancouver. She has had previous positions as the Law Librarian at Thompson Rivers University and Director of Library Operations at Courthouse Libraries BC.
Jennifer Taylor is a Research Lawyer at Stewart McKelvey in Halifax. She is a regular contributor of case comments for Stewart McKelvey Publications; CanLII Connects; and the CBA’s National Magazine blog, and has published several articles in legal journals and newsletters. She also presents on topics related to legal research within the firm and in the local legal community.
Over the coming months the editorial board will be updating the site and expanding it, with an emphasis on adding more geographically diverse content.
Here is some of the unsolicited feedback that users of the site have sent to Catherine over the years:
From the library manager of a national Canadian law firm:
“Your site is wonderful. I appreciate the clean layout, the easy navigation, and the pleasant visual experience. Substantively, the site is brilliant. The coverage of US and UK materials was the perfect amount to guide me in the sessions I gave on these topics. I especially appreciate the time you have taken to discuss the differences and similarities between QL, WL and CanLII.”
From a professor teaching legal research:
“Just a little note from Montreal to tell you how fabulous your legal research website is. Keep up the good work, it’s extremely useful and appreciated!”
From a law librarian at a large national law firm:
“I’m a relatively junior law librarian with just about four years under my belt. I came across your two guides online today and they were already helpful for me. You’ve done such a great job on these guides and I just want to thank you for these because if they help me, I know they must be helpful for others too.”
From a law student:
“Thank you so much for posting such an informative site. I fortunately discovered it in first year and expect to be using it throughout the rest of my studies and career.”
From a lawyer in Nova Scotia:
“Your website is excellent! I found it very informative, comprehensive and one of the best constructed websites I have found for legal research.”
From the head of a paralegal program at an Ontario college:
“I teach a Legal Research course to second year students in the … College Paralegal Program. Your materials are so clearly written and replete with valuable links that I know my students would have far fewer difficulties than has been the case when I have used a print required course text.”
From a law professor in Pennsylvania:
“I am presenting a Class in Environmental Law at … University, Pennsylvania, which includes an introduction to legal writing skills. I found your work to be clear, succinct and accurate and would appreciate your permission to use the information at “Best Guide to Canadian Legal Research” in my class.”
From the Coordinator of the Legal Support Group of a Federal government agency:
“Our unit provides Legal Support, including research, preparation of court documents, etc., to the lawyers of the Agency who provide advice to the Agency, its staff, and when necessary, represent the Agency before the Courts. I personally have used your website over the years to assist me with various legal research questions and have found it to be a great resource.”
From an Osgoode Hall law student:
“You should receive the Nobel Prize for your contribution to legal education for your legal research website. It’s awesome in the true sense of the word. At first glance, I was hoping to purchase a hard copy, but as I spent more time on the site it became clear that this was next to impossible — now I fully understand what Marshall McLuhan meant when he said that the age of electronic media spells the end of book. How you put all that information together is beyond comprehension. It seems like a life’s work.”
In an article published in the Globe and Mail, the Canadian Press has reported that a recent budget cut in the federal Justice Department represents about 20 per cent of research spending, and means the loss of eight experienced legal researchers.
The article is based on the contents of an internal report prepared for deputy minister William Pentney, which The Canadian Press obtained under the Access to Information Act.
The result is a diminished research capacity, which now must be better controlled from the top to ensure it supports the government policies, says the report.
“The review confirmed that there have been examples of work that was not aligned with government or departmental priorities,” says the October 2013 document ….
A spokeswoman for the department who was contacted by The Canadian Press for comment acknowledged that there is a “continued refinement of (research) work plans to focus on government and ministerial priorities”, but stated that departmental researchers will be free to reach any conclusions.
The Canadian Press article also states that:
The department has also reduced its subscriptions to print publications and legal databases, including QuickLaw, for savings of about $1.6 million a year starting April this year.
There are a couple of interesting tidbits regarding legal information issues in the 2013 Annual Report of the British Columbia Court of Appeal.
The Court’s Library Committee reports that in light of increasing costs the Judges’ Library has either cancelled subscriptions outright, or reduced the number of subscriptions, for 36 looseleaf publications.
The Report sets out the Court’s practice with respect to neutral citations and publication of judgments, as follows:
All reserve judgments are given a neutral citation and are posted on the Court’s website. All oral judgments of a division are transcribed, given a neutral citation, and posted on the website. Oral chambers judgments are transcribed and placed in the Court file. All oral judgments can be found in Court Services Online (CSO) attached as a document to the Court of Appeal file. Oral chambers judgments are available to counsel or parties upon request, but are not given a neutral citation or posted on the website unless they are considered to be of precedential value.
The Queen’s Printer of British Columbia has announced that, in order to increase access to legislative material, the content currently accessible by subscription on QP LegalEze will be made available on the free BC Laws website.
On April 2nd the following content will become available on BC Laws:
- current and historical Orders-in-Council
- Tables of Legislative Change
- Point in Time tables
The announcement states that:
The new BC Laws will provide upgraded features such as search capability, and the ability to create apps that can pull legislative data directly from BC Laws website.
There is additional content on QP LegalEze that will gradually be transitioned over to BC Laws, such as the Gazette Parts I and II. Once the transition is complete, QP LegalEze will be discontinued.
This is great news for anyone wanting to research British Columbia legislation. In particular, the removal in the 1996 revision of legislative history information from the legislation itself – into tables available only by subscription or through libraries – has resulted in many lawyers and students not taking the extra step to consult those tables. This information is necessary for any kind of historical legislative research, and for finding judicial consideration of earlier versions of the legislation. Starting on April 2nd, it will be freely available on BC Laws.
Congratulations to the provincial Government and the Queen’s Printer for taking this significant step in recognition of the importance of open government.
Now for some other items on my wish-list for BC legislation:
- access to a full version of the larger statutes, rather than access only in parts
- official version status for legislation on BC Laws.
In an additional email sent March 26, 2014 to subscribers, QP LegalEze Customer Service communicated that:
QP LegalEze will remain operational until all content from QP LegalEze is transitioned to the new and improved BC Laws.
The email states that content will be transitioned over the next several months, and that it will be duplicated on both sites during the transition period. Enhanced search functionality will be available on BC Laws starting April 2. Once all content has been moved to BC Laws, users of QP LegalEze will be notified of the specific date on which QP LegalEze will cease operating.
Over the next several months the WestlawNext Canada (WLNC) platform will be rolled out to existing subscribers, and made available to new subscribers. Law students on academic accounts will not have access until September 2014, but faculty will have access before then. This is the first of several posts that will explore selected features of WLNC.
Plain language and Boolean searching
The “plain language” search engine is the default search method in WLNC, when using the main search box at the top of the page. However, it is easy to run a Boolean search in that box if you prefer.
- If you type a query containing a proximity connector or a truncation command the program assumes you want a Boolean search and runs that type of search instead.
- If your query doesn’t contain those items, but contains commands such as AND, OR or quotation marks, then you are asked if you want to run a Boolean search.
- You can also change your preferences so that a query containing any of those commands will automatically be run as a Boolean search.
The Boolean commands have not changed from the old Westlaw Canada platform. You can tell whether your search is being processed as plain language or Boolean, because Boolean searches will have adv: inserted in front of the query.
The plain language search engine looks for the best match for your search terms, using frequency and proximity algorithms. It automatically looks for variant word-forms of the terms in your query. It also uses phrase recognition, and searches equivalencies for commonly used acronyms.
The plain language search engine works well, but it will work even better if the following adjustments are made to your query.
First, although phrase recognition is incorporated, you can force phrases to be recognized by putting terms in quotation marks.
Second, the plain language search engine may retrieve documents that do not contain all of your search terms, because it looks for the best match.
- To force a term to be included put + immediately before the term. To force a term to be excluded put – immediately before the term.
Third, the plain language search engine does not incorporate concept-based searching, in which synonyms are automatically searched. To capture synonyms use the following method, which also works in the Natural Language search on the old platform.
- Put synonyms in parentheses immediately after the search term, and separate the synonyms by commas. For example, to find synonyms for timber, your query might contain timber (lumber, wood, log)
A search from the main search box runs a federated search through all WLNC content except for the finding tools (eg., Abridgment Digests, Words and Phrases, ICLL). Alternatively, you can search particular content, including one of the finding tools, by clicking on that content link.
Search results for federated searches initially appear in an Overview format, showing the top documents in each content type. The results for each content type can be expanded from a menu on the left.
A drawback of the federated search is that your search results will contain documents that are outside of subscription. They will be marked as outside subscription in your search results.
- One way to avoid seeing these documents in your results is to restrict your search to a particular product or content type that you subscribe to, such as LawSource.
- If your search is restricted in this way, the search box will show that restriction.
Find by citation or name
Citations are searched on WLNC by typing them into the federated search box. If the citation is valid, all is good. You will easily retrieve the document without the search being assigned any “suggested charge-back” value. However, if the citation is invalid then a federated search will automatically be run.
- To avoid this, you can insert fi: or find: before the citation.
- Multiple documents can be retrieved by separating the citations with a semi-colon.
- If a KeyCite result is desired for a citation, then type kc: before the citation(s).
To find or note-up a document by name, it is necessary to use a separate tab, labelled “Find and KeyCite by Name”.
- Unlike CanLII, the federated search doesn’t seem to rank first those documents that contain the search terms in the name. Also, using the federated search will result in the search being assigned a “suggested charge-back” value.
- It is therefore better to use this separate tab to find or KeyCite documents by name. This method searches only in the name field.
- Unlike Quicklaw, there is no look-up list generated to help the user get to the correct document.
The Quicklaw interface is superior for finding by name and by citation, because of the look-up lists that are generated as soon as information is typed into the Find a Document box on the Start Page. CanLII does not include look-up lists for finding by name or citation. However, it does use this feature for its Noteup search box. Also, CanLII’s federated search engine is more effective at searching by name, because it puts those documents whose name contains the search terms at the top of the result list.
WLNC does generate look-up lists below the federated search box for some items:
- the name of a jurisdiction, such as British Columbia
- the name of a publication, such as a law journal
- the name of a database or topical collection
- the name of a statute (not all statutes are included in the look-up lists).
The subtle ADVANCED link to the right of the search box is the entry point to search templates for Boolean searches.
The Advanced Search option is best used for a content category, and provides a template designed for searching that particular content. Select a category from the Home Page, such as Cases and Decisions, and then click on ADVANCED.
- You will see a template similar to the current search templates in Westlaw Canada. ADVANCED queries are based on Boolean searching. Results will be relevancy ranked.
- If you type a query that contains search commands into the template, that will override the default connector in the template. The actual query that will be run appears in the search box at the top of the page, as you type into the template.
I have long held the view that researchers who have not learned Boolean search syntax will achieve better results on Westlaw using plain language searching.
- The main advantage to the templates is if you want to use fields to narrow your search, such as specifying a particular judge or counsel. However, many of the fields in the templates are not necessary for narrowing your search in WLNC, because you are able to filter your search results by the same parameters.
- WLNC does allow use of multiple search boxes from the template to create a query, which provides more flexibility than the old platform. In addition, you can boost words in your query by requiring them to appear at least a certain number of times in retrieved documents. However, there are no proximity options built into the template.
- You can overcome this by adding proximity commands to the query you type into the template. Pay attention to how the query appears at the top of the screen, to ensure that the actual query is what you intended.
All results in WLNC are initially ranked by relevance. This is a major improvement over the default ranking method in the old platform.
The relevancy ranking takes several factors into consideration, including citation relationship data. Some of the factors that influence ranking in the US product, such as digest classifications and user print/downloads, are not employed in WLNC.
Results for case law can be re-sorted by date, citation frequency, and court level. This type of functionality has been available for some time on Quicklaw and CanLII.
Results can also be filtered in many ways, depending on the content type.
Initial impressions of searching on WLNC
WLNC puts a “Google-like” search experience at the front and centre, but ensures that Boolean searches can be easily run. I think this is the right choice for a product designed for lawyers. However, the search engine must be very good for experienced legal researchers to rely on behind-the-scenes algorithms rather than crafting Boolean queries. My experience so far with the WLNC plain language search engine is that it works very well.
I suggest that users try both Boolean and plain language searches and compare the results. I would be interested to hear your views. One drawback to plain language searching as presented in WLNC is that there is no obvious way to search synonyms. However, this can be resolved using the method described above. It would be helpful if WLNC referred to this method in its Search Tips page.
The ability in WLNC to re-sort search results, and the easy access to filtering options, greatly improve on the old platform.
The tools for finding by name and citation in WLNC do not live up to the rest of the product. This basic function needs some attention.
Future posts will explore other features in WLNC, such as viewing and working with search results, using folders, and the new “suggested charge-back” structure.
It is time to submit nominations for the 2013 Clawbies – the Canadian Law Blog Awards. There are so many great blogs that it is hard to choose. Here are my selections – 2 Canadian and 1 American.
- Appellate Blogs – The Canadian Appeals Monitor, from McCarthy Tétrault LLP, is a great way to follow recent appellate decisions. It primarily covers Canadian appellate decisions, but also incorporates important cases from the UK Supreme Court and the US Supreme Court. This Week at the SCC, which is published on the blog, provides concise summaries of selected SCC decisions and leave rulings of interest to Canadian business and professions. The Canadian Appeals Monitor also publishes the The Second Opinion, which contains more detailed commentary from the Opinions Group of the firm.
- Legal Research and Law Libraries – The Stream is published by Courthouse Libraries BC. Legal research posts by library staff primarily cover legislative research and using free research tools. The posts are clearly written, with lots of visuals. Guest bloggers from the BC bar also contribute posts, on law and practice topics that relate to the practice portals on the Courthouse Libraries site.
- Legal Technology – VOXPOPULII is published by the Legal Information Institute at Cornell University Law School. The posts cover a wide range of current topics in the field of legal information, and are usually presented in language that non-techies can grasp. It provides an interesting window into what might be coming next in the field of online legal research.
Quicklaw has announced two enhancements to its QuickCITE citators: the ability to conduct searches within statute citator results, and the addition of treatment signals to case law search results.
Searching within citator results
After obtaining QuickCITE results for judicial consideration of legislation, a researcher can now search within those results for phrases or keywords. This is done using a new search box called “Search within Citing Cases”.
This functionality was already available on Quicklaw for cases judicially considered, and is now available for legislation judicially considered. It is particularly useful if there is a large number of citing results, and allows the researcher to narrow the list to cases dealing with a particular legal issue or fact pattern.
This functionality is also available on Westlaw Canada (through Limit KeyCite Results) and on CanLII (by searching within the list of note-up results).
Treatment signals in search results
Quicklaw has added QuickCITE treatment signals to case law search results. This enables a researcher to see the status of any case listed in the search results, and link directly to the QuickCITE record by clicking on the treatment signal.
Treatment signals used in Quicklaw indicate that:
- the case has negative information (red hexagon)
- caution should be used (yellow triangle)
- the case has some positive treatment (green diamond)
- the case has some neutral treatment (purple circle)
- the case has citation information (blue hexagon with C)
This functionality is also available in Westlaw Canada, although the treatment signals are a little different. As with any treatment code, researchers should exercise caution in relying on treatment signals as a basis for deciding whether to review a case.
More information about citators and treatment signals
For more information, see the following pages on this site:
Keep your research current – Case citators
Researching Canadian Federal Statutes – Judicial consideration
Researching British Columbia Statutes – Judicial consideration
Making Good Choices – Statute citators
Making Good Choices – Case citators
The Library of Parliament, in collaboration with Canadiana.org, has published online the Historical Debates of the Parliament of Canada. It is a free searchable database of historical debates of the House of Commons and the Senate.
Coverage goes back to 1867, and ends when the Parliament of Canada site starts its coverage (1994 for the House of Commons, and 1996 for the Senate). For the few years prior to commencement of official reporting, an unofficial version of the debate is included on the Historical Debates site. These reconstituted debates are drawn from newspaper reports of the day.
As with many archival databases, it is challenging to conduct full text searches and to review search results in the Historical Debates online. Search terms can appear anywhere in the volume, because proximity connectors are unavailable and the entire volume is a record. However, if the user starts out with a statute name, and the relevant year or legislative session, the correct volume can be located quickly. Once a volume is selected from the result list, more specific keyword searches can be done within that volume. This two-step method is likely to be the most efficient approach to searching this material.
Other useful online resources for federal legislative research include:
For further information, see Researching Canadian Federal Statutes.
The Suggested Textbooks page in the Best Guide to Canadian Legal Research has been updated. Please let me know if you have recommendations for texts that are not included.
With assistance from the Law Society of Upper Canada and LexisNexis Canada, CanLII has added approximately 15,000 cases from the Ontario Reports to its collection.
The announcement from CanLII notes the following benefits to the profession and the public:
With OR cases dating back to the 1930s complementing the hundreds of new Ontario cases added every month, the collection is improved dramatically in both quantity and quality.
For the public, this addition extends free access to a valuable resource that was previously available almost exclusively through subscription-based or other paid services.
Prior to this development, there were significant gaps in CanLII’s coverage of Ontario case law. The addition of this body of case law will go a long way toward closing those gaps, and increases the reliability of CanLII as a tool for legal research.