Legal Research Survival Guide, Part 4 – Following the Breadcrumbs: Source Notes and How to Use Them

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With their jumble of letters, numbers and symbols, legal citations can give researchers quite the headache. While you may have already figured out how to navigate case citations, legislative citations are quite different and can seem even more confusing. One place you may come across legislative citations is in the source notes (or historical notes) found at the end of sections of consolidated law online or in printed statute and regulation revisions. This blog post will help you to decipher and interpret source notes found in statute consolidations.

Don’t miss the other Survival Guide posts

Source notes are printed at the end of sections of consolidated statutes to show you the amendment history of a particular section and to enable you to trace the section back in time. The citations found in source notes are like breadcrumbs citing to legislation that has affected the consolidated law in some way, either by enactment, amendment or repeal. They can also indicate when the statute was last consolidated. If the section in question has not been amended since it was originally enacted or last revised, the source note will only show the citation to the original act or last revision.

Let’s use section 18(1) of the Employment Standards Act, 2000 found in Consolidated Law on eLaws as an example:

What the source notes for section 18(1) of the Employment Standards Act, 2000 indicate is that there are two acts that have affected this section. Let’s break down the citation to the first act listed in the source note:

2000, c. 41, s. 18(1)

Year: This number refers to the year in which the statute received royal assent, and the annual volume to reference when looking for this statute in full.

Chapter: The ‘c’ stands for the chapters which make up an annual volume. Once royal assent has been given, each statute is assigned a chapter number. This number is referencing the chapter making changes to the section of the consolidated law in question.

Section: This is a very helpful component. This number represents the specific section that enacted or made changes to the section of the consolidated law in question.

So, “2000, C. 41, s. 18(1)” refers you to the Employment Standards Act, 2000, S.O. 2000, c. 41, where you’ll find s. 18(1) as it was enacted.

The second citation in the source note, “2002, c.18, Sched. J, s. 3(10)” refers you to a subsequent amending act, the Government Efficiency Act, 2002, S.O. 2002, c. 18. In this large omnibus act, Schedule J, s. 3(10) makes a slight but significant change to s. 18(1) by striking out “11 hours” and substituting “11 consecutive hours”.  

Similar source notes to those provided on eLaws are available for federal consolidated acts on Justice Laws and for most other provincial and territorial laws on government websites.

By following the trail of legislative citations provided in source notes, you can discern the changes made to the consolidated law over time, and find the legislation responsible for making these changes.

And don’t forget if you get lost along the way, follow the breadcrumbs to our Ask a Law Librarian service and we’ll help get you back on track.