When and how to use a legal encyclopedia

Legal encyclopedias contain a narrative summary of the law, supported by references to primary sources. A legal encyclopedia may be the fastest way for you to get a reasonably current summary of the law on a certain topic, and to obtain references to relevant primary sources.

There are comprehensive legal encyclopedias, that purport to cover all legal topics. Examples of comprehensive legal encyclopedias are the Canadian Encyclopedic Digest, and Halsbury’s Laws of Canada. There are also topical encyclopedias, that purport to cover the law in a particular subject area. Couch on Insurance is an example of a topical encyclopedia. It is a multi-volume set covering American insurance law.

Unlike texts and periodicals, legal encyclopedias do not provide legal analysis or policy discussion. They seek only to summarize the law. Usually different titles are written by different authors, meaning that the quality of one title may vary considerably from the quality of another. Also, the currency of different titles may vary greatly. Always check to see who has written the title, and how current it is.

Before relying on a statement in a legal encyclopedia, review the primary sources cited to ensure the statement is supported by the sources. Often a bold statement of law in an encyclopedia or text is not fully supported by the authorities cited.

If there are other secondary sources covering your topic which are current, accurate and comprehensive, you may not need to use a legal encyclopedia. However, a legal encyclopedia can be particularly helpful in the following circumstances:

  • It can give you a quick overview of your subject. A legal encyclopedia is particularly useful as a starting point when you are researching the law of another jurisdiction.
  • Even if you find texts dealing with your subject, the cases and statutes cited may not be from your jurisdiction. An encyclopedia may help by providing references to primary sources from your jurisdiction.
  • The encyclopedia may be more current than relevant texts.
  • The encyclopedia will include titles on narrow topics for which there is no text.

Canadian Encyclopedic Digest

The Canadian Encyclopedic Digest, or CED, is a comprehensive Canadian legal encyclopedia. It is published in a Western edition, and an Ontario edition. The Western edition covers the law of the four Western provinces. Although these two editions exist, the contents of many titles are exactly the same in both editions. The currency and quality of the content varies considerably from one title to the next.

Both the Western and Ontario editions are available electronically through LawSource on WestlawNext Canada. The default federated search on LawSource includes the CED. Browsing and drilling down by table of contents is also available. CED references are included in KeyCite results.

Halsbury’s Laws of Canada

Halsbury’s Laws of Canada is a recent publication that covers all Canadian jurisdictions. It is published in print, and is available electronically to Quicklaw Full Service subscribers. Selected titles are also available in Quicklaw topical products. References to Halsbury’s Laws of Canada are included in QuickCite results.

This publication contains clearly written statements of Canadian legal principle based on common law and legislation, and indicates where the law differs as between jurisdictions. It is useful as a starting point or where a brief refresher on a particular area of law is required.

The history and editorial policies of Halsbury’s Laws of Canada are described by Gary Rodrigues in “Halsbury’s Laws of Canada” (15 August 2011) online: slaw <>.

Halsbury’s Laws of England

Halsbury’s Laws of England is regarded as authoritative. It is a useful starting point for UK law, and for finding  authorities that support general propositions.

There are several access points:

  • the Consolidated Index
  • the Consolidated Table of Cases
  • the Consolidated Table of Statutes.

The hardcover main volumes are updated by the Cumulative Supplement, and by the looseleaf Current Service.


Rodrigues, Gary, “The ‘Great Encyclopedias’ of Legal Research” (14 July 2011) online: slaw<>.

Rodrigues, Gary, “Halsbury’s Laws of Canada” (15 August 2011) online: slaw <>.

Rodrigues, Gary, “The Canadian Encyclopedic Digests” (1 December 2011) online: slaw<>.