BPTC/BVC Legal Research

Practical legal research is a vital skill for barristers and is the preparatory steps that enable the full appreciation of a factual, procedural or legal matter in any given case.

It is paramount to ensure that it is focused, thorough and relevant but is wider than simply researching the law by way of case law precedent or statute. Such research should be carried out as early as possible in each given case or problem thus allowing the opportunity for further research as required. The fact that the research may be returned to requires accurate research records to be kept, thus providing a thread that can be backtracked or taken forward. In the early days it is well worth considering using a template to focus the mind and ensure that all issues are catered for and recorded.

Research can be focused; is a piece of legislation in force? Or it can be unfocused: identifying a question. In either case it is important to identify the scope of the project. The art is to ensure that known sources are always used. Primary sources include the use of Statues and case law whilst secondary sources include textbooks, journals or Internet based databases. A good starting point can invariably be Halsburys Laws. Whichever source is used it is useful to identify the scope of their worth, for example by checking the editorial content of the source. Currency is also important to ensure for example, that any cases used have not been overruled and this can be done learning to use such sources as the Monthly Digests. Ensure that the date at which the research is aimed is identified and clarified, for example, care should be taken when researching such offences as sexual offences. Note should be taken of the date of the offence to ensure that the correct Sexual Offences Act is applied. Familiarity with sources can help with the speed of research for example, how books are referenced or cross-referenced.

Learning to think laterally will enhance any research undertaken; can I find out from another source, for example, driving licence information might be gleaned from the DVLA. It can be useful to also make imaginative use of sources because it is important to remember that no one source is comprehensive. Information can be unlimited so it is important to assess the depth of the research required and it is equally important to carry out that research proportionally, for example, narrow areas down to focus the matter.

Practitioners will find a method that will suit them but a guideline is to firstly determine the nature or area of the law in which the enquiry falls. Secondly determine the keywords but take care not to fall for synonyms (the same meaning of two terms), related terms or changes in language. Indentify the source and its type, for example, whether it is primary or secondary. Once these steps are completed the research can be conducted whilst ensuring a clear record is kept and focus maintained by continuous reference to the original question. Finally a competent researcher will check on any updates and edit and proof read the final document.

Consistently good practical legal research comes with practise and experience but following a logical and strict method will assist in that development.