Guidelines for computer research
Use with other tools
Commercial 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.
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?
There are variations in search syntax between products. However, techniques for standardizing your search queries will help overcome the variations between Westlaw 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 Westlaw 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.
Full text cases are long documents. Using AND as a connector means the words could appear anywhere in the document. Your relevancy 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.
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.
Most 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. Truncation involves ending the word with a symbol – usually ! or * – at the point where the root ends. For example, in Westlaw 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. Westlaw Canada has an excellent natural 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. Westlaw Canada includes a Thesaurus to help you identify synonyms. It also has a Related Terms feature that suggests additional terms to add to your search.
Blair & Maron, “An Evaluation of Retrieval Effectiveness for a Full-Text Document Retrieval System”, (1985) 28 Com. ACM 289; Dabney, “The Curse of Thamus: An Analysis of Full-Text Legal Document Retrieval” (1986) 78 Law Libr. J. 5; Berring, “Full-Text Databases and Legal Research: Backing into the Future” (1986) 1 High Technology L.J. 27. Cf. Burson, “A Reconstruction of Thamus: Comments on the Evaluation of Legal Information Retrieval Systems” (1987) 79 Law Libr. J. 133.
Chester, Simon, “Electronically Manufactured Law – What’s Changed and Why Does it Matter?” (9 March 2009) online: slaw <www.slaw.ca>.
Crosbie, Connie, “AALL 2011 – To Recover or Not to Recover: Trends, Solutions, and Alternatives for Taming Online Research Costs” (25 July 2011) online: Connie Crosby <conniecrosby.blogspot.com>.
Fischer Kuh, “Electronically Manufactured Law – why the shift to electronic research merits attention” (2008) 22 Harvard Journal of Law & Technology 223.
Lexum, “Decision Names” (3 August 2011) online: slaw <www.slaw.ca>.
MacEllven, Legal Research Handbook, 5th ed. (Toronto: Butterworths, 2003).
Meyer, “Law Firm Legal Research Requirements for New Attorneys” (2009) 101 Law Library Journal 297.
Peoples, “The death of the digest and the pitfalls of modern electronic research: what is the modern legal researcher to do?” (2005) 97 Law Library Journal 661.
Tjaden, Legal Research and Writing, 3rd ed. (Toronto: Irwin Law, 2010). Companion website: www.legalresearchandwriting.ca
Tredwell, “The Joy of Wildcards (and Boolean operators)” (1 September 2011) online: slaw <www.slaw.ca>
Wheeler, “Does WestlawNext really change everything: the implications of WestlawNext on legal research” (2011) 103 Law Library Journal 359. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1773767.
Whelan, Finding & Managing Legal Information on the Internet (Aurora, Ont.: Canada Law Book, 2010). Companion blog: Finding legal information.
Wren & Wren, Using Computers in Legal Research (Madison: Adams & Ambrose, 1999).