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Law Library Guide: Reading cases

This guide will help you understand and develop the skills necessary to conduct Legal Research

Reading cases and summarising them

Being able to summarise a case is an important skill that you will rely on throughout your legal career. It is especially valuable while you are studying. Summaries are essential when you revise for tests and exams, since you will NEVER have enough time to read through the law report again during exam preparation, and also provide you with a way to force yourself to analyse, and therefore to understand, the cases you have to read.

These guidelines are intended to provide a framework to help you develop this skill. The guidelines are merely guidelines; as you develop your legal skills, you may wish to adapt them to suit your own style.

Some tips before you start

(1) Cases will figure prominently in your reading for two main reasons. First, under the doctrine of precedent they are a source of law: depending on the status of the courts involved, a subsequent court either must follow the earlier court’s determination of the rule that must be applied to a particular issue (‘binding precedent’), or may do so (eg where the subsequent court has a higher status than the prior court, or where the two cases concern different, though related, issues – ‘persuasive precedent’.) Secondly, careful study of the sources and methods of reasoning employed by judges should show you what is expected of you when it comes to answering the typical ‘problem-type’ question in exams where, in essence, you are expected to emulate the reasoning process of judges. More generally, you should see what is involved in determining the appropriate law, and in applying legal rules.

(2) Your reading and summary of a case must therefore be directed at isolating the legal issue decided in a case, identifying the rule applied by the court to resolve that issue, grasping the reasoning that led the court to that formulation (ie the identification and use of sources of law), and understanding how the court applied the rule to the facts - how it resolved the legal issue.

(3) Before you start to read the case, ensure that you are familiar with the area of law with which the case is dealing. This will give you an idea of what you should be looking for when you are reading. Many cases deal with multiple issues, of which only one might be relevant to your course. It may be necessary to point out briefly which issues were dealt with, and then to note the issue covered in your summary. Read your class notes or a textbook so you have some background before you start to read the case.

(4) Read the case through once before starting to summarise. This will make it easier for you to pick out the relevant areas of the case. It may be useful to underline or highlight as you go.

(5) The headnote of the case is also useful, as it will give you a brief outline of the issues. However, do not rely on the headnote alone for your summary. Headnotes are prepared by the editors of the law reports and may contain errors. Also, reading the whole case will help you to understand the issues in context and how the judge reached the final decision.

(6) Be as brief as possible. Remember that the purpose of a case summary is to enable you to remind yourself quickly of what was decided in a particular case.

(7) Identify the court that decided the case, and note whether it was a full bench decision or one by a single judge. Where there is more than one judgment, note the names of the judges who wrote them, and how many other judges concurred with them. Note whether a particular judgment is a majority or a minority judgment. This is important because of the way in which South Africa’s system of precedent works, and can be very helpful when you are writing an essay or studying for an exam.

(8) Use a Legal dictionary or Latin dictionary to look up any terms you do not understand.

(9) Any case can be broken down into the following components:

  • The facts.
  • The question of law and answer thereto.
  • The reasoning employed by the court, which leads to this answer.
  • The outcome: the application of the law to the facts and the court's order.

This is also the most sensible framework to use for structuring your summary.

For more detailed advice on reading and summarising a case, consult the Law Faculty's Research, Writing, Style and Referencing Guide from page 11 onwards.