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Words and phrases research

books01Your research may turn on the meaning of a particular word or phrase in a statute or contract. There is a specialised body of research tools designed to assist with finding the meaning of words and phrases. The first tools to check are those covering judicial interpretation of words and phrases. If you do not find what you need there, consult legal dictionaries, and general English dictionaries. Words and phrases publications are also helpful as a starting point when your research involves unfamiliar terms, or terms too narrow to be indexed in other sources.

The following sources can be consulted for words and phrases research:

  • The most comprehensive Canadian words and phrases collection is Carswell’s Words & Phrases, available online as part of LawSource. This research tool provides an excerpt from the cited case. The print version is updated using soft bound supplemental volumes, and Canadian Current Law.
  • Sanagan’s Encyclopedia of Words and Phrases, Legal Maxims contains good coverage of Canadian case law, and provides the excerpt from the cited case.
  • Quicklaw, in its commentary collection, offers a resource called Canadian Legal Words & Phrases. Users can search edited listings of judicially considered words and phrases and view an excerpt from the cited case.
  • Full text keyword searches can be done in electronic databases of case law. However, this method is only helpful if the terms are quite distinctive.
  • Indices to case reporters will usually include a table of words and phrases judicially considered.
  • Legal encyclopedias such as Halsbury’s Laws of England and the print version of the Canadian Encyclopedic Digest contain words and phrases listings.
  • If you are working in a specialised area of law, there may be a words and phrases publication unique to that topic. For example, Jolin, Canada Tax Words, Phrases and Rules deals exclusively with words and phases relevant to taxation. Indices for topical reporters usually include a table of words and phrases judicially considered.
  • The leading English publication is the multi-volume Words & Phrases Legally Defined. It is updated by paper supplements. A second multi-volume English publication that is a good source of Commonwealth cases is Stroud’s Judicial Dictionary of Words and Phrases. The indices to the All England Reports and to the Law Reports also contain words and phrases listings.
  • The leading American publication is the multi-volume West’s Words & Phrases, also available on Westlaw. If using the print version, be sure to consult the pocket supplement at the back of each volume.
  • Legal dictionaries, such as the Canadian Legal DictionaryBlack’s Law Dictionary, and Jowitt’s Dictionary of English Law, may prove helpful if the usual words and phrases sources do not. Some legal dictionaries, such as the Irwin Law Canadian Online Legal Dictionary, and the Legal Dictionary on Findlaw, are now available through the Internet.
  • Some subject classifications in the Canadian Abridgment Case Digests, such as Contracts – Interpretation, Statutes – Interpretation, provide access to cases interpreting particular terms.
  • Statutory interpretation texts and contracts texts often contain a section on interpretation, or the index will direct you to a discussion of the interpretation of a particular term.
  • The federal Interpretation Act and the provincial Interpretation Act contain extensive definitions that may apply.
  • The definition sections of relevant statutes and regulations should be reviewed. Some electronic research templates allow you to carry out a field search that will narrow your search to the definition sections of legislation.
  • The courts will often look to the ordinary meaning of a word to assist with its interpretation. If the word is not a legal term of art, check its meaning in a few good dictionaries. Members of the Vancouver Public Library can access the Oxford English Dictionary online by logging in to the VPL website. Although dictionaries are the last item in this list, they are regularly relied on by the courts and should be included in your words and phrases research.