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Getting started at uni, study skills.
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Writing and assessments
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- Educators' guide
- Writing case notes
Case notes usually require you to provide a summary of the case which outlines the relevant facts, explains the legal issues and the judge’s reasoning (ratio). This is followed by a critique of the judge’s decisions and a discussion of the implications of the case. In doing this, you are evaluating the court’s decision.
More information on assignment writing
There is no one way to structure case notes. The table below outlines requirements and possible elements of case notes. Always refer to assignment instructions.
Key features of the professional, academic style required in writing case notes includes:
- formal language; avoid idiom or slang, using I, no contractions
- an objective tone that avoids emotive language
- headings, sub-heading and numbering to separate your arguments
- paragraphs and complete sentences to develop your position, not dot points
- arguments based on evidence from case reports and scholarly sources, which must be cited using AGLC4
- Answering a legal problem - IRAC
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- Open Universities Australia
Legal Research Skills
- Research Skills
- Writing and Study Skills
- Academic Sources
- Evaluating sources
What is a Case Note?
For some writers it means a summary; for others, a summary plus a critical commentary. Check the assignment instructions. If you have to write a summary plus a critical commentary, it's usually best to answer in two sections. Some assignments have four sections, basically covering the same divisions.
What goes into a case summary?
This is your understanding of the case in your own words, as briefly and succinctly as possible (aim at less than 10% of the word count, or else proportional to the marks). It may start with:
- the case citation (choose the most authoritative report series)
- parties (legal terminology) and brief facts
- type of court and history of the case
and should then objectively cover the major aspects of the judgment, including:
- the major arguments presented by counsel
- ratio per judge, including commentary on the arguments presented
Read your assignment instructions carefully to make sure you are emphasising those areas highlighted by your lecturers. Below is an example of some initial notes on a case, with some 'prompts' to move from the summary to the critique. It is an aid to your reading, but you will need to be selective about what you include in your summary.
Example of Notes from a Case (from Monash University)
What is a Case Critique?
In a case critique you need to write analytically, creating an argument. This is your opinion on the case and the judgment, analysing why you consider the case important.
Your claims must be substantiated and referenced, and with a clear and logical argument defined by sub-headings. You should adopt a clear position from which to examine the significance of the case. In developing your argument, you will draw on the case and other materials to reveal that significance.
Depending on the assignment, you should:
- look for one or more major features, either procedural or substantive, such as dissenting arguments, legislative base, use of evidence, cases presented, considered, applied etc.
- analyse the strengths and weaknesses of the case, especially those points that may give rise to policy amendments.
- comment on how the legal arguments made by counsel have been used by each judge.
- identify and analyse differences in the judges' reasoning.
- discuss the impact or significance of a case, carefully considering current legislation and precedent. Sometimes you have a very recent case to critique, so you need to go back to the legislation and to previous cases on the same topic.
- consider possible areas of legislative reform, if included in the instructions.
Look at published Case Notes
Most law journals regularly publish case notes, especially on recent decisions. You can choose:
- a general legal journal, such as the Law Institute Journal available for access in AUSTLII
- a general academic journal, such as Monash University Law Review
- or a journal dealing with a specific area of law such as the Journal of Equity available for access in Lexis Nexis.
See an example of a case note in AUSTLII.
Another approach is to use a case citator, such as CaseBase, to find the case and associated commentary. The articles referred to may be case notes or more general commentary covering the legal issues involved in the case.
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- Updated: Aug 3, 2023 3:04 PM
- URL: https://libguides.usc.edu.au/legalres
- UniSC Library YouTube
First Year Tip Series: Introduction to Case Notes
Ben conlon, senior editorial board (online editor).
A case note is something that every law student is asked to write at some point in their studies and, without some direction, can be a daunting task. This article aims to briefly explain what a case note is, what the benefits of writing a case note are, and how to actually write a case note. Further information is also included at the end of the piece about the Gernot Biehler Case Note competition.
What is a Case Note?
A case note is a summary and analysis of a single case, as opposed to an article, which examines an area of law. A case note should outline the facts of the case, as well as its ratio decedendi , and also provide a critical analysis of the decision. The analysis should concern the correctness of the decision, with reference to case law, accepted logic and academic opinion. A good case note usually contains analysis of the effect that the decision may have on future cases, especially if the decision is a departure from a previously settled point of law.
What to Keep in Mind when Selecting a Case
If you have the option of selecting the case you would like to write on, below are some factors you should keep in mind:
- Try to pick an area of significant concern or a topical issue
- Does the case seem to ignore reason/common sense?
- Is there a recent case where the court departs from precedent or a position accepted in other jurisdictions?
- Does the decision which may have significant extra-legal repercussions.
- Will this decision prompt interesting results in future cases?
- Was this the first case in a newly-legislated area?
- Has there already been substantial academic commentary written on this case? Often it may be better, for originality’s sake to write on a new case, or one that has not been subject to as much discussion.
How to Write a Case Note
As with any piece of legal writing, the first step in writing a case note is conducting the necessary research. Read the case multiple times and note down the facts and the ratio decedendi . The case should be read in the context of the area of law as a whole; understanding how the case relates to existing principles and case law is key in forming a critique and analysis. Further consideration should be given to whether the law is still relevant, and whether it is still considered to be a strong precedent. While a case note tends not to rely on academic sources as much as a legal essay, it is still worth exploring academic commentary around the case, from which a greater perspective can be gleaned.
There is no rigid structure for how a case note should be written, but this article will attempt to lay out a basic structure and guide for writing the case note itself. It is worth noting that many brilliant case notes do not follow this structure, and can often depart from it dramatically, so there is no pressure to follow this structure.
As is the case in most legal writing, it is generally recommended that the piece is broken down into separate headings. This can make the case note easier to follow, and direct the reader to the important elements of the piece. When writing a case note for a legal journal or a university assignment, regard should be had for the word-count when deciding on how specific the headings are; if there is a lower word-count, it might make sense to merge some of the headings together.
(i) The Introduction
The introduction of a case note should introduce the case and indicate the court in which it was decided. It should lay out the structure of the case note, explain the significance of the case (i.e. the change in the law brought about by the case), and briefly outline your opinion of the case.
(ii) The Facts of the Case
The second section of the case note should briefly outline the facts of the case. It is important to keep in mind that a case note is not simply a summary of a case; the facts simply set out the background for your analysis. Due to this, this section of the case note should not be too long, and the aim should be to illustrate the facts that were relevant in the court’s reasoning, rather than the entirety of the factual circumstances. This is generally a good place to mention the decisions of the lower courts in relation to the case at hand.
(iii) The Decision and the Ratio Decidendi
This section of the case note should deal with the reasoning that lead to the court’s decision, and specific emphasis should be placed on the key decisions and the ratio decedendi . Here, detail should be provided on the case law that the court either relied on or moved away from, and a short explanation of the reasoning behind such moves should be given. The way that the decision was handled should also be mentioned (e.g. was the judgment suspended to allow the government to amend the issue?), as this is often indicative of the attitude of the courts in relation to the issue at hand.
(iv) Critical Analysis/Further Discussion
The primary aim of a case note is to critically analyse a particular decision and the effect it has on the law. “Critically analyse” can be a confusing phrase, so considering some of the following questions may be a useful starting point:
- Is the logic of the judgment sound? Do you agree with it? Why or why not?
- Does the judgment differ or depart from previous decisions? Does it follow some aspects but not others?
- How does the judgment compare with international precedent?
- Does the judgment reflect political/economic/cultural tensions?
- Does the judgment fail to acknowledge any legal or extralegal repercussions it may have?
- Has the judgment failed to address any important questions?
- Do you agree with the decision? Why?
It is worth noting that “critically analyse” does not mean you have to disagree with a judgment; the best critical analysis praises some aspects of a judgment, and attacks others. Commentary on previous related decisions may help to inform your opinion on a case, and help with the critical analysis. It is recommended that some thought is given to how the case may have a lasting impact, and it should be acknowledged whether or not the case might be open to appeal. However, as in any legal piece, it is advisable that a certain degree of critical analysis is woven throughout the piece, rather than isolated to one section.
The conclusion should very briefly summarise the decision, the flaws and achievements that have been discussed throughout the case note, and your overall opinion. A general rule for any piece of writing is that new substantive arguments that have not been discussed in the body of the piece should not be introduced in the conclusion. Finally, some concluding remarks could be offered about the effect of the case on that area of law, and how future cases may be influenced by it.
Some Final Tips
As is the case with any piece of legal writing, there should be a cohesive thread of argument that runs through the case note, but this may be difficult to pick up on after several hours of writing by yourself. As a result, the argument you have crafted might make sense to you, but not to a new reader. One of the best ways to deal with this is to ask someone else to read over the piece and offer some of their own comments.
While it is always advised to read through previous academic pieces written on your chosen area, make sure when citing academics that you are also evaluating their arguments to the reader. Do you agree with what the academic has said? How does their argument bolster yours? Or, how would you refute what the academic has argued? Analysing the academic commentary you have utilised is key to presenting critical analysis in your piece.
In the same vein, when presenting your arguments, it is recommended that you recognise ‘the other side.’ This is particularly important in controversial areas of law, like socio-economic rights, where presenting a one-sided argument will reflect poorly on the author’s critical analysis.
As a final note, the TCLR Online has published many case notes, and reading over these can help you to form a picture of what a case note looks like, and what a case note should contain. Many longer case notes have also been published in the print version of the TCLR, which can be found on the legal article database Heinonline.
The Gernot Biehler Case Note Competition
The Trinity College Law Review runs an annual case note competition in honour of Dr. Gernot Biehler. Dr. Biehler was a distinguished fellow of Trinity College and a lecturer in international law and conflicts of law, who died aged 48. Dr. Biehler was a keen supporter of the work of the Law Review.
The competition is open to first and second year undergraduate students from all universities. Case notes are subject to a word limit of 3,000 words excluding footnotes, and the deadline for submitting your entry is the 17th January 2020. The winning entry is published in the print journal of the Trinity College Law Review, and the winner receives a cash prize of €250. More information on the competition can be found at www.trinitycollegelawreview.org/submissions/ .
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- Sep 9, 2014
How to Write a Case Note
Central to writing a good case note is developing your ability to distil the key facts and ratio decidendi and capture all of this in a few handy, easily memorised bullet points. Simple in description but maddening in practice, especially when some cases span hundreds of pages.
Much of your ability to sift the vital points of law and facts from broad historical outlines of the law or seemingly irrelevant segues will come from mastering your bulk reading skills and constant practice.
Once you have read a case and feel you have a grasp of some of its major issues, you will need to organise them as a case note.
Case Notes for Assessment
If you are being assessed on your ability to make a thorough case note – beyond the brief revise-as-you-go needs of your own study notes – you are really being asked for your critical analysis of the case. That is, whether the case, in your opinion and by reference to your own logical and legal analysis, was correctly decided. What follows is merely one approach to addressing this kind of an assessment; there are many approaches to writing case notes, each suited to different and individual styles. Below is a list of other guides and examples to which you may refer.
Begin by introducing the case
State its name, which court it in which it was decided and its legal significance – what did it change? Perhaps offer some context, such as prior law it affected. Outline whether you think the case was indeed correctly decided or not – and list your reasons. Keep brief. A good introduction is succinct, compelling and provides a ‘bird’s eye view’ of your whole argument.
Outline the key facts
Don't forget to include any contradictory facts or evidence that arose in the judgment. The purpose of this section is to provide a broad-sweep background to your analysis, so stick to relevant facts and again, stay brief. Case notes are often quite short, and it is in your analysis that you will score well, as this demonstrates your ability to argue in a legal context.
Identify the ratio
This involves identifying the decisions reached by each judge, noting any dissents. This will be important if you disagree with the outcome of the case.
Analyse the decision(s)
If there were several different judgments, as if often the case, it might be convenient to combine identifying each judgment with your analysis of the judgment as you go.
Analysis is often where you encounter the most difficulty. Remember – analyse, don’t describe. Consider the decision in light of existing law (often referred to within the judgment itself) – does it contradict prior decisions? Does it seem logical to you? Does it seem consistent? If the decision departed from prior cases, was this appropriate? Often judgments will depart from prior law, specifically to keep up with the changing values of an evolving society – for ‘policy’ reasons. Or a judgment may simply reflect the prejudice and hysteria of its time. Show you are aware of this.
What would you decide?
Having evaluated and analysed the case, would you agree with the majority or dissent? Would you agree/disagree – but for different reasons to those of the judges? Explain why. Refer to past cases, refer to international law, refer to second reading speeches (which are a good way to grasp the intentions behind the creation of legislation) – to explain why you believe your approach might be more appropriate, or achieve greater justice. Be original. Be outrageous. Demonstrate that your ability for deep thinking and analysis.
Some Tips and Tricks for Finding the Ratio
Firstly, a very lawyerly disclaimer: this ability is perhaps one of the most difficult to master, and is often one that newcomers to studying law find so frustrating and challenging.
Finding the ratio – the key point of law to be taken from a case is a crucial skill given that our common law system allows both legislation and cases to determine the shape of current law. Judgments, however, can range from one page to an epic hundred or so. Even judges that agree on orders to be made or even on certain points of law may differ on others. While this may have the immediate effect of raising the blood pressure of law students and legal practitioners, it also might serve the purpose of ensuring diversity of legal views at the judicial level. That is, if this point of law comes up again in a different case, the arguments of a dissenting judgment might be seized upon by the majority and made law.
Enough of philosophy. Now the frustration. Unfortunately, there is no clear-cut method to distilling the ratio from judgments – it is simply an ability best honed by practice. We do have a few suggestions: Read the case and read a summary. Referring to what a third party – usually a lecturer, who may have made a case summary for lecture – regards as the ratio will help you refine your own skills as you read through the case and look for why this point of law was more important than others.
Clarify. Ask study group friends, students in your class or more approachable tutorial leaders about what they saw as the ratio from cases you are studying. Again, it’s a matter of regular practise and humility – as one Taoist philosopher put it, “True knowledge is to know when you don’t know.”
FROM THE ARCHIVES: This story was first published on Survive Law on 7 February 2010.
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