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How to cite Canadian court cases

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
A citation is simply a string of letters and numbers that identifies a case and helps the reader to find the case, whether they are looking for it in a paper (hardcopy) reporter on the shelf of a library, or in a computer database. Citations also contain information about when, and by which court, the decision was made, which is important to know when deciding how important a case is.
 
Citation guides are books of rules which define how citations should be presented. Consistent presentation is important because it assists the reader in collecting the information they need while skimming over the information they don’t.
 
The McGill Law Journal Canadian guide to uniform legal citation, 7th ed. (Toronto: Carswell, 2010) is the most commonly used citation guide in Canada.
 
The purpose of this article is to provide a short introduction to citation of Canadian court cases based on the parameters defined by the McGill Guide. This summary is obviously not intended to be exhaustive, but merely identifies the basic rules such that common citation mistakes can be avoided.
 
There is nothing mysterious about citations; getting them correct is simply a matter of remembering a number of rules. Admittedly, there are quite a large number of rules, but the most important ones are contained in this article.
 
Preliminary comments
Before explaining the rules for citing Canadian cases, it is worth explaining neutral citations and electronic database citations because these are often misunderstood and incorrectly used.
 
Neutral citations
Neutral citations are citations issued to court cases by the courts themselves at the time the court releases the decision. 
 
Unlike traditional citations, neutral citations do not indicate where a case can be found in a paper reporter or in an electronic database, they are merely codes to identify cases instead of using the names of the parties in the case.
 
Neutral citations consist of three elements: year / court code / case number.
 
The year is obviously the year of the decision.
 
Each court has its own court code:
o   Supreme Court of Canada = SCC
o   Federal Court of Appeal = FCA
o   Federal Court = FC
o   Provincial courts of appeal = a two letter province identifier + “CA” e.g. ABCA, BCCA, ONCA.
o   Provincial superior courts = a two letter province identifier + a two letter superior court identifier which varies depending on the name of the superior court e.g. ABQB, BCSC.
o   Provincial inferior courts = a two letter province identifier + a two letter inferior court identifier e.g. ABPC, BCPC.
 
No periods are placed between the letters in the court code e.g. Insurance Corp. of British Columbia v Hosseini, 2006 BCCA 4
 
The case number indicates how many decisions that court issued before the case being cited i.e. courts start at “1” each year and count up as the year proceeds.
 
Neutral citations should always be used when available. This is because, as the name suggests, they are “neutral” in the sense that they are issued by the court and are not affiliated with any particular publisher. Furthermore, neutral citations are the most useful information for finding cases in electronic databases because virtually all databases allow one to look up cases using neutral citations.
 
Neutral citations have not been around for all that long; they were approved in 1999 by the Canadian Association of Law Librarians and the Canadian Judicial Council. Many courts, including the Supreme Court of Canada, the British Columbia Appeal, Supreme, and many Provincial Courts began providing neutral citations in 2000.
 
Electronic database citations
Database citations are special citations given to cases when publishers put them into their electronic databases. These are really the addresses where the cases can be found in the publisher’s electronic database. Analogous to traditional citations which tell readers where to find the case in a paper reporter on the library shelves, the database citations allow researches to tell the computer where to find the wanted case within the electronic database.
 
Examples of database citations are:
o   CanLII: Vorvis v ICBC, 1989 CanLII 93 (SCC)
o   Quicklaw: Insurance Corp. of British Columbia v Hosseini, [2006] BCJ No. 6 (SC) (QL)
o   WestlaweCARSWELL: Underwood v Underwood, 1995 CarswellOnt 88 (Ont Gen Div)
 
The problem with database citations is that they are only helpful if you have access to the particular database the citation relates to, and many people do not have access to expensive databases like Quicklaw, LexisNexis, and Westlaw. Therefore database citations should only be used when the case has not been given a neutral citation (i.e. is pre-2000) and the case is not reported in a paper reporter i.e. very rarely.
 
If a database citation is the only citation available, the CanLII database citation should be used because that database, offered by the Canadian Legal Information Institute, is free and therefore the most accessible. However, some cases will only be available in the commercial databases such as Quicklaw and then using those database citations is unavoidable.
 
Many lawyers do not appreciate that the Quicklaw database citations should be avoided. Quicklaw, perhaps sneakily, uses database citations that seem neutral e.g. Insurance Corp. of British Columbia v Hosseini, [2006] BCJ No. 6.
 
This apparent neutrality makes people think that Quicklaw’s database citations are official and their use has become widespread. But, the way to identify a Quicklaw database identifier is by the “No.” No other citations have “No.” anywhere within them.
 
Changes regarding periods in 7th edition of the McGill Guide
As noted above, the McGill Guide is the most commonly used citation guide in Canada. In a somewhat controversial move the 7th edition stated that almost all periods should be removed from citations i.e. no period after the “v” separating the parties, no periods in court names, reporter names, and even no periods after initials of authors. The change was apparently partly driven by the desire to simplify citations and make them more search friendly for electronic databases.
 
Citation rules
As noted in the introduction, getting citations right is not difficult; it is just a matter of remembering the rules. The following sets out the most important rules and will assist in avoiding some of the more common citation errors. However, if you want to get all your citations 100% correct, becoming familiar with the entire McGill guide is the only option.
 
Order of information in citations
The elements of citations always appear in the same order, which is as follows:
 
Name of case / year of decision /, / neutral citation /, / paper reporter citation or database citation / pinpoint / court / , / judge / database identifier / , / history
 
As discussed below, not all of these elements appear in every citation.
 
The first two commas shown in bold will be in all citations and will be in the locations shown. The second two commas shown in bold will only be included if the elements after them are included i.e. the “judge”, “database identifier”, and “history” elements are not included in all citations. 
 
The following provides a brief overview of each element.
 
Name of case
Name of case / year of decision /, / neutral citation / , / paper reporter citation or database citation / pinpoint / court / , / judge / database identifier / , / history
 
The name of the case is the only element that is present in every case citation. The name, including the “v”, should be in italics, and is the only part of the citation that should be in italics.
 
R v Latimer, 2001 SCC 1, [2001] 1 SCR 3
 
Year of decision
Name of case / year of decision /, / neutral citation / , / paper reporter citation or database citation / pinpoint / court / , / judge / database identifier / , / history
 
The year of the decision is only included if the year is not apparent from any of the citations provided. Since neutral citations should always be provided if available, and are generally available for decisions since 2000, the “year of decision” entry will be in very few citations for cases decided after 2000.
 
Furthermore, because many reporters use the year of the decision as part of their paper reporter citation, many cases decided before 2000 will not have the “year of decision” entry in their citation either. For instance, an example of a Supreme Court Reports citation is Yeomans v Sobeys Stores Ltd., [1989] 1 SCR 238. Since the year of the decision is apparent from the paper reporter citation a year of decision entry is not required.
 
Some paper reporters such as the British Columbia Law Reports (e.g. Ed Froese Farms Ltd. v Costco Wholesale Corp. (1997), 30 BCLR (3d) 362 (SC)) and the Dominion Law Reports (e.g. Canadian Indemnity Co. v Canada (Attorney General) (1974), 56 DLR (3d) 7 (BCSC)) do not use the year of the decision in the citation, and if no neutral citation is available for these, the year of decision must be included. 
 
To summarise the above, the “year of the decision” entry is only included if the year is not apparent from any of the citations provided and this will be the case if the case is pre-2000 (and so has no neutral citation), and (apart from the electronic databases which should not be cited to if possible) it is only reported in a reporter that does not use the year as part of the citation e.g. the British Columbia Law Reports or the Dominion Law Reports.
 
Whenever the “year of the decision” entry is used, it is always placed in round brackets and the comma comes after the year. Where the year of the decision is included as part of the paper reporter citation, square brackets are used and the comma comes before the first square bracket.
 
Neutral citation
Name of case / year of decision /, / neutral citation / , / paper reporter citation or database citation / pinpoint / court / , / judge / database identifier / , / history
 
Neutral citations should always be used when they are available, which, as explained above, will generally be the case for decisions after 2000.
 
The neutral citation being placed before the paper reporter (or database citation if no paper reporter citation is available) is a change that was brought in by the 6th edition of the McGill Guide. The neutral citation is the only citation that does not have periods within it e.g.
o   R v Latimer, 2001 SCC 1, [2001] 1 SCR 3
o   Insurance Corp. of British Columbia v Hosseini, 2006 BCCA 4, 49 BCLR (4th) 250.
 
Paper reporter citation or database citation
Name of case / year of decision /, / neutral citation / , / paper reporter citation or database citation / pinpoint / court / , / judge / database identifier / , / history
 
Citations to at least one paper reporter should always be provided if they are available i.e. if the any of the paper reporters have bothered to publish the case in hardcopy. This allows people without computer access to find the case in the library.
 
o   Insurance Corp. of British Columbia  v Hosseini, 2006 BCCA 4, 49 BCLR (4th) 250.
 
As explained above, database citations should be avoided and should only be used if the case has no neutral citation and no paper reporter citation is provided. If a database citation is the only choice, the CanLII database citation should be used if possible.
 
Assume you are including a quote in your work, and are citing to a paper reporter. To save typing, you may copy and paste the text of the quote into your work from the version of the case in an electronic database. But, you should be careful when doing this. You obviously want the quote in your work to match the quote in the paper reporter you are citing to. However, some commercial publishers replace the actual citations provided in the court judgment with citations to the paper reporters that they own i.e. they want to encourage people to use their publications. In such cases, if you copy the text from the electronic version of the case, it will not appear exactly as it does in the paper reporter you cite to. The way to deal with this is to always check your quotes against the paper reporters – a tedious task which only the most conscientious researchers would bother with. Alternatively, you can copy and paste the text from CanLII – not being a commercial publisher they are less inclined to tamper with citations.
 
Another issue to be careful about when relying on electronic versions of cases is that often the formatting (e.g. bold, underlining, italics) is omitted from the electronic versions. For example, you may notice that the electronic version of a case will have “emphasis added” written when the case quotes from another case, but no emphasis is apparent when looking at the electronic copy of the case. This is because the formatting is lost when the case is imported into the electronic database. Look in a paper reporter to determine how and where the emphasis was added.
 
Pinpoint
Name of case / year of decision /, / neutral citation / , / paper reporter citation or database citation / pinpoint / court / , / judge / database identifier / , / history
 
“Pinpoints” are used to tell the reader where in the decision being cited the information being referred to can be found. Pinpoints should be provided when a quote is included from the cited source, but may be provided even if no quote is included to indicate where the issue being referred to was discussed.
 
Pinpoints to paragraphs are preferable to pinpoints to page numbers because they are more specific e.g. e.g. R v Rhyason, 2007 SCC 39 at para. 2. However, many reporters, especially the older ones, do not include paragraph numbers and then citing to pages is the only option.
 
Be careful about relying on the paragraphs provided in electronic versions of cases because sometimes the electronic publishers add paragraph numbers even though the paper reporter you will be citing to does not have paragraph numbers. If in doubt, check the paper reporter in the library.
 
The British Columbia Law Reports (BCLR) started using paragraph numbers in BCLR (2d) 54. The Supreme Court of Canada Reports (SCR) started using paragraph numbers in 1995.
 
Court
Name of case / year of decision /, / neutral citation / , / paper reporter citation or database citation / pinpoint / court / , / judge / database identifier / , / history
 
The court element should only be included if the identity of the court is not evident from the citation(s) provided. Neutral citations always indicate the name of the court, and so the court element is not required when a neutral citation is provided.
 
For Supreme Court of Canada decisions cited to the Supreme Court Reports, the court element is again not required because the name of the court is obvious from the citation.
 
If the name of the province is evident from the name of the reporter e.g. BCLR, then only the level of court is required e.g. Ed Froese Farms Ltd.  v Costco Wholesale Corp. (1997), 30 BCLR (3d) 362 (SC). However, if the name of the province is not evident from the citation, a full court identifier should be provided e.g. Canadian Indemnity Co. v Canada (Attorney General) (1974), 56 DLR (3d) 7 (BCSC).
 
Court identifiers are always included in round brackets and have periods between the letters used. Appendix F of the McGill guide provides a list of court codes for all courts in Canada.
 
Judge
Name of case / year of decision /, / neutral citation / , / paper reporter citation or database citation / pinpoint / court / , / judge / database identifier / , / history
 
Generally, the judge element is optional. However, the judge’s name should generally be included when citing dissenting reasons e.g. R v Rhyason, 2007 SCC 39 at para. 23 per Charron J., dissenting.
 
Database identifier
Name of case / year of decision /, / neutral citation / , / paper reporter citation or database citation / pinpoint / court / , / judge / database identifier / , / history
 
As explained above, database citations should be avoided. However, if they are used they may need to be identified by a database identifier. As can be seen from the following examples, when the name of the electronic publisher is not apparent from the database citation (like it is for CanLII and Carswell) then a database identifier should be placed at the end of the citation, like it is for Quicklaw in the example below.
 
o   Vorvis v ICBC, 1989 CanLII 93 (SCC)
o   Insurance Corp. of British Columbia v Hosseini, [2006] BCJ No. 6 (SC) (QL)
o   Underwood v Underwood, 1995 CarswellOnt 88 (Ont Gen Div)
 
Quicklaw is the main publisher whose name is not apparent from the database citation, and so (QL) is the most commonly used database identifier. Note that there are no periods in this database identifier.
 
History
Name of case / year of decision /, / neutral citation / , / paper reporter citation or database citation / pinpoint / court / , / judge / database identifier / , / history
 
History may be prior history or subsequent history. Generally, the history element is optional, although subsequent history is often desirable, especially if the case was subsequently overturned.
 
The following example includes both prior history and subsequent history:
Ardoch Algonquin First Nation v Ontario (1997), 148 DLR (4th) 126 (Ont CA), rev’g [1997] 1 CNLR 66 (Ont Gen Div), aff’d 200 SCC 37, [2000] 1 SCR 950.
 
The indicators of prior history are:
o   aff’g = affirming
o   rev’g = reversing
 
The indicators of subsequent history are:
o   aff’d = affirmed
o   rev’d = reversed
 
Subsequent history may also indicate whether leave to the Supreme Court of Canada has been requested, had been granted, or was refused. See the McGill guide for details.
 
Unreported decisions:
The ordinary rules of citation do not apply to unreported decisions. Citations for unreported decisions should have the following elements:
 
Name of case / year of decision / registry name and docket number / court / judge.
 
All of these elements should be included in every citation for unreported decisions. The year of decision should be in round brackets, and in the following format: (dd month, yyyy). The month written out in full e.g. Blue Tree Hotels Investment (Canada) Ltd. v Hotel, Restaurant and Culinary Employees’ & Bartenders’ Union, Local 40 (17 July 2000), Vancouver S003828 (BCSC), Boyd J.