Finding “Unreported” Ontario Decisions: Unreported, but not Unretrievable?  

Stacks of archived documents on shelves

Trying to find an Ontario case but can’t find any trace of it online? With the advent of online databases such as Lexis Advance Quicklaw, Westlaw Canada, and CanLII, one may have the impression that “everything is now online.” And while we now commonly refer to any decision not published online as “unreported,” even the term itself has changed in meaning (for an excellent review of the evolution of the term, look to the Law Society of Saskatchewan’s blog post “Unreported, You Say?”). 

Nevertheless, finding caselaw that is not readily available is still a reality the legal researcher faces today, and if you can’t find it online or in any of the printed reporters, there are some steps you can follow to try and locate that elusive decision:  

Step One: Contact the Court

Regardless of the age of the case, the courthouse where the case was initially heard is the place to start. While the courthouse may not still possess the documentation you seek, they might be able to provide additional helpful details concerning the case, such as: 

  • If the file has been transferred, and the transfer list that includes information on exactly where each case was sent to 
  • the case file number 

Each courthouse has their own retention policies regarding cases and their documentation, though generally they keep all documents relating to an action on file in the court office for approximately 3 -5 years

The information you will need before contacting the courthouse:  

  1. Where the trial took place
  • Identifying which courthouse to contact may be one of the trickier pieces of information to discover, and you may need to do a bit of sleuthing amongst articles and legal industry news for leading information. For example, if you have the name of the presiding judge, you can then reference the Canadian Law List to discern where the judge was sitting at the time of the decision (and thus where the case was heard). The library has retained past editions of the Canadian Law List going back to 1890, or you can check this list of former judges of the superior courts (1791+).  
  1. Date of the proceeding 
  1. Names of the parties

For a complete list of Ontario court locations, look to this Government of Ontario webpage

If the court file is no longer at the courthouse, it may have been moved to a storage facility offsite …

Step Two: Ask About Offsite Storage

If the courthouse in question no longer houses the court file, but it’s too “new” for the Archives of Ontario (see Step Three), it may have been moved to an offsite storage facility. This semi-active storage facility is not accessible to the public, and requests must be made through the courthouse where the decision was heard; it is the courthouses’ responsibility to recall records from semi-active storage when required. There may be a fee associated with these requests. 

Step Three: Contact the Archives of Ontario

The Archives of Ontario holds court records from some (but not all courts) up to the late 1980s. Cases received are archived and some are converted to microfiche. The originating court’s transfer list should be consulted to provide information on exactly where the file is within the Archives (see Step One).   

The information you will need before contacting the Archives of Ontario: 

  1. Case file number (see Step One)
  1. Name of court 
  1. Level of court 

Depending on the case, the archivist may be able to order the files for PDF reproductions to be delivered by email. You can find the Archives’ contact information on their Contact Us webpage

It is important to keep in mind that some cases are simply unavailable, and some searches will leave you coming up short. However, by following these steps, you will know that you have done your due diligence in attempting to locate the case.