13 Finding a Case

Finding a known case

The known case approach relies on having some details about the case – either the case citation, the judge’s name, the date of hearing, or some other combination of details.

If there is a known case citation, locating the decision will be straightforward.

  1. locate the law report abbreviation
  2. select the correct law report series
  3. use a database or use the print copy in your library

Secondary Sources

Secondary sources such as legal encyclopaedias, books, articles, and looseleaf/commentary are often the best place to start when looking for case law. Important cases and the key points of law will be discussed and referred to by experts.

Keyword searching

Searching for cases by subject or topic can be difficult. It is almost always more efficient to identify relevant cases via secondary sources. The options below are a few different ways to search using keywords.

Catchwords and summary search

One of the most effective keyword searches you can try is the catchwords and summary search (if this is available in the database you are using). By searching this field only, you will receive a smaller number of more relevant results.

The catchwords are a series of keywords and phrases, separated by dashes, added to the headnote of the case by the law reporter. The purpose is to quickly describe the subject matter of the case, including relevant legislation and provisions. See these example catchwords from Cronin v Hamilton [1958] Qd R 24:

Criminal law — Justices — Assault — Circumstances of aggravation — Punishment — Forms of conviction — Evidence — Sexual offences — Corroboration — The Criminal Code, ss. 19(8), 341-345 — The Justices Ac, 1886 to 1949, s. 211.

The digest or summary briefly summarises the matter and outlines the key holdings of the case. Most legal databases will allow the user to refine their search to just the catchwords and summary field.

Full-text searching

A full-text search looks for keywords across the entire text of the case. This is the broadest type of search and will not only receive the largest number of results of all the searches, but the highest number of irrelevant results. Each database has a specific help section that gives tips to the user on how to search effectively. Consider using Boolean operators, proximity searching, and placing limitations to get the best results.

Legislation and provision

Many legal databases allow you to search for cases that consider a particular Act/Regulation and section. Generally, you can achieve this using the Advanced Search function in a database.

Consider re-ranking any results you have so that decisions from higher courts are at the top of your results.

Words and phrases judicially considered

Searching the words and phrases judicially considered field will find decisions where judges have discussed or defined particular words and phrases.


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Legal Research Skills: An Australian Law Guide: 2023 Edition Copyright © 2023 by The University of Queensland, James Cook University, the University of Southern Queensland, Charles Darwin University, Southern Cross University, Queensland University of Technology, and Deakin University is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.