Guidelines for computer research

Use with other tools

educCommercial databases and free Internet sites provide access to a vast amount of case law. This has led to a tendency to go straight to keyword searches to find relevant cases, rather than using other types of finding tools and secondary sources which were the traditional entry points for research.

The latter approach has value, because it forces the researcher to place the problem within a conceptual framework, provides analysis of the legal point, and may direct the researcher to related topics or issues that should be considered. Good research should embrace both the narrow approach enabled by keyword research in primary sources, and the broader conceptual approach enabled by secondary sources.

Even if you start with keyword searches in the case law, be sure to review relevant secondary sources to gain additional context and understanding of the law.

Even a very good query will not necessarily retrieve all relevant cases. Studies have documented that lawyers conducting electronic research retrieve far less of the relevant case law than they think. That is another reason why you should incorporate commentary (texts, journals, CLE papers, encyclopedias) and other finding tools (citators, digests, etc.) in your research.

Know your product

Some of the basic features that a user should understand:

  • What information is included, and how current is it?
  • What is the search syntax?
  • How are the search results ranked?
  • How are you, and your clients, being charged for your use?

Search syntax tips

Natural or plain language searching

The newer generation of search tools is designed to provide a search experience similar to Google – just type a string of words without worrying about connectors or word variations.

This type of searching can be used, with some caveats, in the leading Canadian search tools.

  • CanLII uses AND as the default connector. It also incorporates automatic phrase recognition and searches for word variants.You can simply type a string of words into the CanLII search box instead of crafting a Boolean query.
    • Where you will encounter difficulty is if you want to incorporate synonyms as alternate terms. That cannot be done without using parentheses and Boolean commands on CanLII.
  • WestlawNext Canada uses an excellent plain language search engine as the default search method.
    • Because it uses a “best match” approach, you can include synonyms in your query without any search commands.
    • The “best match” approach can sometimes lead to unexpected results, as your search results may contain documents that do not include a search term that you consider mandatory. You can override this by placing + directly before any mandatory terms.
    • When your search results are shown, you will have the opportunity to narrow the results — at which point you must use Boolean syntax.
  • Quicklaw has a natural language search engine, which is available from the start page. It is not as sophisticated as the WestlawNext plain language search. One drawback is that it does not search for word variants. It does allow you to specify mandatory terms.

Boolean searching

There are variations in search syntax between products. However, the following techniques will improve your Boolean queries, and can help overcome the variations in Boolean searching between WestlawNext Canada, Quicklaw and CanLII.

  • Use proximity connectors that will find your terms within the same paragraph, sentence, or specified number of words.
  • If the terms will appear as a phrase, search for them in quotation marks.
  • Write out AND and OR rather than assuming that a space between two words will be treated as one or the other.
  • Use parentheses to force the order in which your terms will be evaluated, if you are at all unsure.

The query duty /5 (consult OR accommodate) will work in any of WestlawNext Canada, Quicklaw and CanLII. It will look for duty within 5 words of either consult or accommodate.

This site uses these techniques in syntax examples and in its discussion of query formulation. This should simplify things and reduce the learning curve if you use multiple platforms.

Proximity connectors

Full text cases are long documents. Using AND as a connector means the words could appear anywhere in the document. Your relevancy when conducting Boolean searches will be greatly improved by looking for terms within a sentence, paragraph, or certain number of words of each other. This is referred to as a proximity connector.

duty /p consult looks for these terms in the same paragraph
duty /s consult looks for these terms in the same sentence
duty /5 consult looks for these terms within 5 words of each other

Novice researchers often search for words as a phrase without considering whether the terms always appear as a phrase. Consider whether a short proximity connector, such as one word within 5 of the other, would be better. The proximity connectors in the examples above will look for the terms in either order.

Refine and modify

Rather than using a complex narrow query, consider starting with a broader query and then narrowing it. This method may be easier for novice searchers. The leading search tools all provide a way for you to narrow or refine your search, without incurring additional notional charges.

Review the first few documents and use the feedback from your search results to incorporate other terms and improve your query.

Literal search engines

zap2Many search engines are very literal. When you conduct computer research, in most cases you get only what you asked for. You do not see the surrounding material that would jump out at you from a page in a book. You must therefore have a healthy suspicion index. Think of the various ways your problem could have been described in the document, and the various spellings or word forms the terms could take.

  • Use the truncation features of the service to search for word variations, unless the search engine automatically searches for variations. Truncation involves ending the word with a symbol – usually ! or * – at the point where the root ends. For example, in Boolean syntax on WestlawNext Canada and Quicklaw, negligen! would search for negligence, negligent and negligently.
  • If available, use a natural language search engine that will automatically search for word variants. WestlawNext Canada has an excellent plain language search engine, and CanLII’s search engine looks for word variants.
  • Think of synonyms to describe the same concept or article, such as vehicle and automobile, and include them in your query.


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