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|DIY legal research|
A Short Guide to Australian Legal Research
Research One (17 April 2006)
(Use of this guide is subject to our usual terms and conditions.)
I f you are looking for an answer to some legal problem involving Australian law, and you are new to Australian legal research (for example, you might be an American lawyer familiar with only American legal research or an Australian lay citizen researching your legal rights), then this guide is designed for you.
By no means is this guide intended to be comprehensive, since our aim is to make it as straightforward as possible. Nor is it intended as a substitute for professional legal advice. If you need legal advice, you can find a lawyer who works near you and who specialises in your area of law by searching the Directory of Australian Lawyers and the Yellow Pages.
If you have a favourite resource that is not listed below, or you find a broken link, please contact us. We would be delighted to hear from you and take account of your comments in the next update.
1. Where to start
For people new to Australian law and legal research, an excellent starting point is Nicholas Pengelley's online article Researching Australian Law (2001).
2. Government legal departments
Sometimes the easiest way to find an answer to a legal problem is to ask the government department that administers the area of law in question. For a list of Australian Commonwealth government departments, see Access to Australian Commonwealth Government Information and the Commonwealth Government On-Line Directory. Information is also available from Australia's State, Territory, and local governments. You may also find it useful to consult the government department pages in the White Pages.
3. Community sources
4. Online tools
You may be able to find the answer to your problem on the Internet. You might try one of the major general search engines, such as Google, to find the answer. Or try the many online sources specifically on Australian law, including Australian Law Online, FindLaw, Lawyer4Nix, and AussieLegal, or subject-specific guides such as websites on 'business law' (for example, the Legal Issues Guide for Small Business, FindLaw for Business, and Oznetlaw) and 'constitutional law' (for example, The Australian Federal Constitution — A Guide to Resources and the Northern Territory School of Law's Australian Public Law page).
For a more comprehensive list of online resources, including resources listed by subject area, visit the website of the Department of the Parliamentary Library. Other useful collections include those compiled by the Australian National University, the Federal Court of Australia, Murdoch University, the National Library of Australia, University of New South Wales Law Library, University of Sydney Law Library, LawMap Legal Explorer, Weblaw, and InfoEssentials. Lawyers find LexScripta to be a particularly useful starting point.
Some Australian sites let you post questions and answers on legal topics. FreeLaw has a message board and email research facility free for public use. FarisLaw provides a 'bulletin board' intended for Australian lawyers.
5. Visit a library
If you cannot find your answer online, you may need to visit a law library. Some of the best law libraries are at Australia's law schools. The National Library of Australia also has an excellent legal collection. For a full list of Australian libraries, including law libraries, see the Australian Libraries Gateway. Use the library catalogues to see what textbooks and other sources are available on your topic, read any 'collection guides' produced by your library, and do not hesitate to ask a librarian for help (if you have a general reference enquiry, try 'AskNow!'). If you live in a remote area, the National Library's paid service 'Copies Direct' could be useful to you.
6. Practical guides
Your law library should have a copy of your State or Territory's 'Law Handbook'. These guides give a straightforward, practical guide to the law in your State or Territory. The various Law Handbooks are:
7. Legal Encyclopedias
A legal encyclopedia is often a very good starting point for legal research. Australia has two legal encyclopedias. They are Halsbury's Laws of Australia from LexisNexis Butterworths and the Laws of Australia from Lawbook Co. These encyclopedias are available at good law libraries. They are also available online by paid subscription.
You may find a daunting number of textbooks on your legal subject. See Nicholas Pengelley's Researching Australian Law for a good short list of major texts in the principal areas of law.
9. Journal articles
Journal articles can be very helpful if you need a deep analysis of a problem. To find journal articles on your topic, the best starting point is often 'AGIS', the Attorney-General's Information Service. AGIS is available at good law libraries and by subscription from Informit.
10. Primary sources of law
Whatever books or other help you find, it is important always to verify the information you are given. Read and evaluate for yourself the authoritative sources of Australian law, such as cases and legislation. Determine whether the references you have found to primary sources really are relevant and up-to-date.
To locate the primary sources, you may need to learn the way Australian legal sources are cited. There are several books that explain Australian legal citation and abbreviations, including the Australian Guide to Legal Citation, which is becoming the Australian standard. Once you have found your references to primary sources, the easiest way to access these sources is to use the freely available online databases called Austlii and Scaleplus.
There are a lot of guides and books available to help you. We think the best book on Australian legal research is Gwen Morris et al, Laying Down the Law (6th ed, 2005). We also like Terry Hutchinson, Researching and Writing in Law (2002) and Christopher Enright and Peter Sidorko, Legal Research Technique (2002). The La Trobe University Library has prepared a list of other useful legal research guides. These guides will help you with the essential research skills, such as how to 'note up' cases, track legislative amendments, and perform 'Boolean' searches.
Many online legal research guides are available, including LexisNexis Butterworths' Legal Research Guide, Murdoch University's Guide to Legal Research, University of Queensland's Legal Research Guide, University of Melbourne's Legal Resource Centre, and University of New South Wales' 'Teach Yourself Legal Research'.
For guidance on general legal research technique, see the Best Guide to Canadian Legal Research. This is a Canadian site, but the sections on legal research methodology and strategies provide excellent ideas for Australian legal researchers as well.Sponsored links