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Free access to electronic databases containing English case law:

This article was written by Michael Dew, a Vancouver lawyer who practices civil litigation. Click here for contact information and further details about Michael’s practice. This article provides only information, not legal advice. If you require legal advice you should consult a lawyer.

 

INTRODUCTION
With CanLII (the Canadian Legal Information Institute) providing ever increasing free electronic access to Canadian case law, reliance on subscriptions services like Quicklaw and Westlaw is becoming less necessary. But what free access is available to English cases?
 
This article briefly describes how one may access and search free electronic databases of English case law on the internet.
 
This article begins by briefly describing two websites that provide access to English judgments, and then describes what coverage each of them provides for the various English courts including the following:
o       House of Lords
o       Privy Council
o       Court of Appeal
o       High Court (includes King and Queen’s Bench)
 
DATABASES CONTAINING ENGLISH CASE LAW
BAILII
The most obvious choice for obtaining English case law is the BAILII (British and Irish Legal Information Institute) website. Like CanLII, BAILII is a member of the Free Access to Law Movement, a collaborative effort between key free access to law projects around the world. The umbrella Web site of the Free Access to Law Movement is WorldLII (www.worldlii.org).
 
To see a full list of the LIIs, as well as other Canadian case law databases, see the Legaltree Case law page: http://www.legaltree.ca/node/85
 
BAILII provides free access to databases containing decisions from England, Scotland, Wales, Ireland, Northern Ireland and Europe. The best way to search the BAILII site is to use the advanced search page that allows you to search multiple databases at once: http://www.bailii.org/form/search_advanced.html.
 
Using the advanced search tool you can do a full text search of all the BAILII databases at once, or you can select particular checkboxes to narrow your search.
 
Apart from obtaining electronic copies of known English cases, BAILII can also be used to search for cases on a particular point. Boolean searches can be entered in the search field, and the Boolean connectors are described on the advanced search page.
 
This article focuses on English decisions. To review the scope of coverage of the other collections on BAILII (e.g. Irish, European), review their databases page: http://www.bailii.org/databases.html
 
HeinOnline:
A paid subscription is required to access HeinOnline and so it should not really feature in this article about free access to English case law. However, the public can access HeinOnline for free at the Vancouver branch of the British Columbia Courthouse Library, and access will soon be available at other Courthouse Libraries in British Columbia. Also, many law firms have access to HeinOnline which charges a flat fee annual subscription, instead of charging by the minute like some other services do. Therefore, HeinOnline is worth discussing.
  
 
HeinOnline recently added the English Reports reprint, 1220-1865, to their collection. This reprint consisted of 178 volumes containing over 100 000 cases. The reprint contains all published cases of all English courts prior to commencement of the Law Reports in 1865. The original compilation and publication of this collection took over 30 years to complete (1900-32) and was, at that time, the biggest publishing project ever undertaken.
 
 
One can locate particular cases in the English Reports database on HeinOnline in the following ways:
  • Full text search of the database [guided keyword or Boolean searches (using Lucene syntax)].
  • Browse by Volume. 
  • Browse the alphabetical index of cases to find the volume, and then browse to the case by volume.
With the option of full text searches, HeinOnline can be used for more than just obtaining copies of known cases; one can use it to search for cases on a particular point.
  
 
However, having located a case on HeignOnline, one cannot obtain a “working” electronic copy of the case. HeinOnline output is in pdf form with only one page displayed at a time. You can click on the “view text” link at the top of the screen to obtain a page of raw, unformatted text. This allows you to “Ctrl F” to find key terms, but this can only be done on a page by page basis. The “view text” feature also allows you to copy and paste quotes (to save typing them out) but care should be taken to ensure that the quotes match the original text because the text is raw scanned text which as not been proofread, so scanning errors e.g. 1 instead of l are common. These problems make the HeinOnline output somewhat less useful than that available from services such as CanLII.
 
The English Reports were compiled from earlier publications which were released by a variety of private reporting companies. The preface to the English Reports explains that the “relaxed ideas about spelling in earlier years and … differences in dialects and languages” means that in many instances the same cases were reported in multiple reporters with the spelling of the names in the style of cause being different. However, this duplication has been maintained in the English Reports and so you may find the same case produced twice with slightly different styles of cause.

The HeinOnline instructions recommend searching for possible variations of the names using HeinOnline's Case Locator, or using the Advanced Search tool with careful use of wildcards in your query e.g. use “te?t” to search for both “test” and “text”. To perform a multiple-character wildcard search use the * symbol.

There is a page on the HeinOnline website explaining Boolean searches in more detail, including how to do proximity searches etc.

   
FINDING JUDGMENTS FROM A PARTICULAR COURT
House of Lords Judgments:
The Judicial Committee of the House of Lords is the final court of appeal on points of law for the whole of the United Kingdom (England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland) in civil cases; and for England, Wales, and Northern Ireland in criminal cases.
o       BAILII: Selected decisions since 1838, all decisions since Nov 14, 1996. Do a full text search of using the advanced search page and checking the House of Lords Decisions checkbox: http://www.bailii.org/form/search_advanced.html Alternatively you can browse the House of Lords Decisions by year or name: http://www.bailii.org/uk/cases/UKHL/
o       HeinOnline: All decisions from 1694 – 1865 are contained in Volumes 1-11.
 
Note: House of Lords website
House of Lords judgments since November 14, 1996, are also available on the House of Lords website: http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/ld/ldjudgmt.htm.
 
That page lists the judgements in date order and is the quickest way to find a known judgment in the coverage period.
 
There is an “advanced search” feature on the site, but it is very basic. If you use it, click the “Tick here to control the way your search word is used” box near the top of the search form, and then check the “Lords Judgments” box in the “Document Type” section of the form. Also, be sure to select the “all years” button in the “Date Search” section of the form; the default setting is to search just the last 2 years.
 
Privy Council Judgments:
The Privy Council remained the final court of appeal for Canada until 1947.
o       BAILII: selected decisions since 1884, all decisions 1996 - present (none of which would be Canadian). I searched for some of the well known Privy Council decisions on appeal from Canada and none of them were “selected”. Unfortunately, this suggests that the coverage may be quite sparse. To do a full text search of Privy Council decisions use the advanced search page (http://www.bailii.org/form/search_advanced.html) and check the Privy Council Decisions checkbox. Alternatively you can browse the Privy Council Decisions by year or name: http://www.bailii.org/uk/cases/UKPC/
o       HeinOnline: All decisions from 1809 – 1865 are contained in Volumes 12-20.
 
Unfortunately, CanLII does not provide any coverage of Canadian Privy Council decisions.
 
Court of Appeal Judgments:
England and Wales share a court of appeal and it is divided into two Divisions: Civil (presided over by the Master of the Rolls) and Criminal (presided over by the Lord Chief Justice). Judges of the Court of Appeal are known as Lords Justices of Appeal.
 
BAILII:
o       Civil Division: Selected coverage since 1976, all significant decisions since 1999, all decisions since 2003. To browse by year: http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWCA/Civ/
o       Criminal Division: Selected coverage since 1964, all significant decisions since 1999, all decisions since 2003. To browse by year: http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWCA/Crim/
To do a full text search of Court of Appeal decisions use the advanced search page (http://www.bailii.org/form/search_advanced.html) and check the relevant Court of Appeal division checkbox.
 
HeinOnline:
The Civil Division of the Court of Appeal was created by the Judicature Acts in 1875. The Court of Criminal Appeal was created in 1907 to replace the Court for Crown Cases Reserved. Therefore, no Court of Appeal judgments are contained in the English Reports, which cover decisions up to the end of 1865.
 
High Court Judgments:
The High Court has jurisdiction over England and Wales. The High Court has a number of divisions, some of which have changed names over time. Coverage for each division is set out below.
 
Regarding the BAILII collections, full text searches for each division can be done using the advanced search page (http://www.bailii.org/form/search_advanced.html) and checking the relevant division checkbox. Alternatively, the decisions for each court can be browsed by year or name using the links provided.
 
Administrative Court:
o       BAILII: selected decisions since 1993, all decisions since 2003: http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWHC/Admin/
 
Admiralty Division:
o       BAILII: selected decisions 2001: http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWHC/Admlty/
o       HeinOnline: All decisions from 1776 – 1840 are contained in Volumes 116-167.
 
Chancery Division:
o       BAILII: All decisions since 1606: http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWHC/Ch/
o       HeinOnline: All decisions from 1557 – 1865 are contained in Volumes 21-47.
 
Commercial Court:
o       BAILII: All decisions since 1998: http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWHC/Comm/      
 
Common Plea
o       HeinOnline: All decisions from 1486 – 1865 are contained in Volumes 123-144.
 
Crown Cases:
o       HeinOnline: All decisions from 1743 – 1865 are contained in Volumes 168-169.
 
Ecclesiastical Court:
o       HeinOnline: All decisions from 1752 – 1857 are contained in Volumes 161-167.
 
Exchequer Court:
The Exchequer Court was a former superior court dealing with matters of revenue. It has now merged with the Court of King's Bench and the Court of Queen's Bench.
o       BAILII: Selected decisions between 1584 and 1864: http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWHC/Exch/    
o       HeinOnline: All decisions from 1220 – 1865 are contained in Volumes 145-160.
 
Family Division:
o       BAILII: All decisions since 2000: http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWHC/Fam/   
 
King's Bench Division:
o       BAILII: Selected decisions from 1583 to 1842: http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWHC/KB/
o       HeinOnline: All decisions from 1378 – 1865 are contained in Volumes 72-122.
 
Nisi Prius:
o       HeinOnline: All decisions from 1688 – 1867 are contained in Volumes 170-176.
 
Probate and Divorce:
o       HeinOnline: All decisions from 1858 – 1865 are contained in Volumes 161-167.
 
Queen's Bench Division:
o       BAILII: Most decisions since 1839: http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWHC/QB/    
o       HeinOnline: All decisions from 1378 – 1865 are contained in Volumes 72-122
 
Rolls Court:
o       HeinOnline: All decisions from 1829 – 1865 are contained in Volumes 48-55.
 
Technology and Construction Court:
o       BAILII: All decisions since 1997: http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWHC/TCC/    
 
Vice Chancellor’s Court:
o       HeinOnline: All decisions from 1815 – 1865 are contained in Volumes 56-71.
 
Other English Courts:
For the other divisions [Lands Tribunal, Supreme Court Cost Office, Patents Court, and the Care Standards Tribunal (for care of children)], see the BAILII databases page: http://www.bailii.org/databases.html
 

 

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