Legal Research Survival Guide, Part 8 –Deciphering Case Citations

Upper Canada Common Pleas Reports book spines

Once you’ve mastered the art of deciphering case citations, you’ll find that what initially looked like a jumble of letters and numbers to you is actually very useful legal shorthand. A case citation, properly formatted, can tell you the names of the parties, year, jurisdiction, court level and where to find the decision, all at a glance.

Don’t miss the other Survival Guide posts

Here’s a quick primer (or refresher) on the components and format of the three basic types of Canadian case citations you’ll likely encounter in your legal research:

“Traditional” Citations

Traditional citations refer to cases as they appear in printed law reports.

  1. Names of the parties (aka “style of cause”) separated by “v”, all in italics
  2. Year of decision in brackets (Why are some brackets round and some square? Read our post, Square or Round?)
  3. Volume number of the reporter
  4. Abbreviation of the reporter name (“DLR” stands for Dominion Law Reports. Look to our post “Know What You’re Looking For
    for tips on how to decipher abbreviations.)
  5. The series number of the reporter (Some law reports have different series to break up long runs of volumes.)
  6. Page number on which the case begins
  7. Abbreviation for the jurisdiction and court

Online Citations

Online citations identify decisions found in free or fee-based online sources, such as CanLII, Lexis Advance Quicklaw and Westlaw Next Canada.

  1. Names of the parties separated by “v”, all in italics
  2. Year of the decision
  3. Online database/publisher
  4. Decision number
  5. Abbreviation for the jurisdiction and court

Neutral Citations

Starting in about 2000, Canadian courts began to adopt neutral citations. Since this type of citation is assigned to a decision by the issuing court, rather than a legal publisher, it provides no direction to a particular case reporter or online database. It is neutral and easy to understand, consisting only of the party names and three basic pieces of information – the year, court or tribunal and decision number. Neutral citations should be used where available. Adding a parallel traditional or online citation is optional.

  1. Names of the parties separated by “v”, all in italics
  2. Year of the decision (without brackets)
  3. Court or tribunal abbreviation
  4. Sequential decision number assigned by the court or tribunal (This citation identifies the 1557th decision made by the Ontario Superior Court in 2019.)
  5. Pinpoint reference to paragraph number, if needed

For more in-depth guidance on proper legal citation, consult the Canadian Guide to Uniform Legal Citation (aka the “McGill Guide”). It sets out standards for formatting citations to a range of legal materials from cases to blog posts. You’ll also find handy lists of jurisdiction, court/tribunal, case law reporter and journal abbreviations in the guide’s appendices.