The main sources of law are statutes (legislation) and case law (judgments). Both can be easily found online but you need to know where to look and how to read them.

Nowadays most of our research will take place online, web searching is quick and easy and can be done on a variety of devices. However, unlike many other subjects, legislation is very specific to a certain jurisdiction and it’s easy to come across websites that appear to relate to the subject you were searching for but, on close inspection, they turn out to relate to another country. English speaking countries like the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand often use similar terminology and may have institutions with similar names. It is important to ensure we are looking at an English site and not just a site written in English.

The law consists mainly of legislation (acts of Parliament and delegated legislation) and case law. See sources of law for more information about the various sources of law.

Notation

When a piece of legislation is referred to, you will often see notation such as “s.26(1)(b)(ii) Equality Act”. In this case ‘s’ stands for section and all statutes are divided into sections. Other types of legislation use regulations, rules or articles but the principle is the same. Pieces of legislation are laid out as numbered paragraphs to make it easy to pin-point an exact reference. Paragraphs are numbered following a multi-level convention similar to the multi-level numbering facility found in MS Word, where the two top levels are numbers, followed by letters then Roman numerals. Each section is given its own page on the online versions but not on the PDF or printed versions.

  • Paragraph structure

    26 – section number

    (1) – first level within each section

    (b) – second level

    (ii) third level

    Schedule 1 – Schedule number

     1. – paragraph number

  • Notation

    Type of legislationNotationAbbreviation
    Statutes (Acts)Sectionss 26(1)
    RegulationsRegulationreg 8(2)
    RulesRuler 31(1)
    OrderArticleArt 1(2)

Where to find our legislation

Legislation is easy to find, all Acts of Parliament and Statutory Instruments are on the Legislation website. The site has legislation for the whole of the UK including Scotland and Northern Ireland. If you click on Browse Legislation you go to a page with a map of the UK on the right and a list of items on the left. The map is useful to find legislation applicable to a particular area, otherwise the most useful links are UK Public General Acts and UK Statutory Instruments.

UK Public General Acts are statutes. They are arranged by their year of enactment, the year when the Queen gave them the royal assent. Next to each Act is a c. and a number, this is referred to as the Chapter of the Act, related to the chronological order for the Acts in that year. Statutory Instruments are also arranged by year of creation and give numbers reflecting their order of creation. There is a search facility at the top of the page to find a specific Act or Statutory Instrument by name.

Original or current version

ActVersionOnce you are looking at a specific Act, there are two buttons on the left hand side labelled Latest Available (Revised) and Original (As enacted). In many cases, parts of an Act may have been amended, added or repealed (removed). The latest available version is the current version in force today. Because legislation does not have a retroactive effect, it cannot apply to events that took place before the legislation was passed. This means the original legislation as it was before being revised may still apply in certain cases.

The parts of an Act

The front page of an Act has introductory text explaining the purpose of the Act and a date in square brackets, this is the date of royal assent when the Act became law. All Acts have a table of contents that lets you view at a glance the contents of the Act with links to each section. Some acts also have schedules at bottom of the contents page. When referring to parts of an Act, the section number is given, followed by any paragraph numbers if applicable. For example, s.6(1)(a) of the Equality Act 2010 defines the meaning of disability.

Commencement, amendments and repeals

The contents page will have an item entitled ‘commencement’. Clicking on that link will take you to the relevant page where there will be a list of various sections and when they come into force. There may also be a heading for amendments and repeals linking to the relevant pages containing details about any parts of a statute that have been updated or repealed by the passing of this Act.

Explanatory notes

Act NotesMany Acts will have an additional tab labelled Explanatory notes. These can be quite extensive and include information about the government department that sponsored the Act and details about why the Act was drafted as well as links to ancillary documents. The territorial extent of the act will be dealt with, this refers to whether the Act applies to the whole of the UK or just to an individual country (such as Scotland). There can be commentary about individual sections and a short summary of the commencement provisions.

Statutory Instruments greatly outnumber Acts of Parliament. They are divided into three categories: Orders, Rules and Regulations. All Statutory Instruments are available on the Legislation website.

Orders

Commencement OrdersEach Act will have at least one Commencement Order associated with it, in some cases there will be more than one Order bringing individual sections into force. For example, the Equality Act has 11 Commencement Orders associated with it, over a period of two years. Although the Act was enacted in 2010, some provisions did not come into force until two years later. Orders are divided into articles and subsections referred to as “Art 1(2). Most orders are very short and, other than Commencement Orders, the majority relate to temporary road closures and traffic restrictions.

Rules

Rules are the main source of procedural law, they explain in detail the process to be followed in specific cases. Rules are divided into numbered paragraphs in the same way as Acts, however, each paragraph is referred to as a ‘Rule’ rather than a section as in “r11(3). Like Acts of Parliament, rules also have introductory text containing the date when they were made. Most rules commence on the date when they were made unless specific details are given in the rules themselves.

Civil Procedure Rules

The Civil Procedure Rules (CPR) provide the framework for the whole of the civil litigation system in England and Wales and are extremely important. See Civil Procedure Rules for more information about their application to consumer matters. The Rules are supplemented by Practice Directions that provide detailed guidance for every stage of the civil litigation process. The full set of Rules and Practice Directions are found here.

When referring to the Civil Procedure Rules, it’s common to refer to them as CPR 15.4(1)(a). In these rules, paragraphs are numbered in two levels to start with, i.e. CPR 31.14 or CPR 24.2, followed by either a letter or a number and then a letter, for example we have CPR 24.2(a) and (b) and CPR 24.3(1)(a). Paragraphs referring to Practice Directions are referred to as “PD 7C1.2(3)(e)(1)”. By using the initials CPR is not necessary to make reference to the Civil Procedure Rules again within the paragraph.

Regulations

Regulations complement statute law by addressing specific areas in greater detail. Statutes lay down the overall framework and regulations fill in the detail. They are also divided into numbered paragraphs, however, each paragraph is referred to as a ‘Regulation’, rather than a section or a rule, as in “reg 12(2). Regulations are followed by sub-paragraph numbers in the usual way. Some Regulations are divided into parts and may also have schedules. Most regulations commence on the date when they are made, unless otherwise indicated.

While legislation is all pretty much held under one roof, case law doesn’t fit quite so neatly into a box. Judgments will have been made at different times in different courts by various judges and relate to various issues and areas of the law. The main online resource for case law is the British and Irish Legal Information Institute (BAILII).

Rather than searching for cases, non lawyers will see references to cases mentioned in various places. Not all cases set precedent, only those that have been heard in and decided by the higher courts do, cases disposed off in the lower courts such as the county court, magistrates court and Crown Court as well as cases started in the High Court do not set precedent, this means they are not regarded as case law, however, it can be useful to read some of them for the purpose of reference.

REFERENCESee The English Court System and Appeals and precedent for more information.

Civil cases

Civil Case ReportingFor civil cases, the first word is the surname of the party who initiated the case. At first instance it would be the claimant, the appellant in an appeal case. The second word is the surname of the defendant at first instance or the respondent in an appeal case. Only surnames are used, no first names. If either party is a corporation, the name of the corporation is used without “ltd”, “Limited” or “PLC”.

The year is either the year of judgment or the year when the case was reported, followed by the volume number and name of the law report where the case was reported. The last number is the page of the relevant law report where the case is found. For practical purposes, it’s enough to know the case by the names of the parties and maybe the year in case there are two cases involving similar names.

Neutral citations

From 2001 onwards, cases are given neutral citations without reference to a specific law report. For example, the case below refers to England and Wales Court of Appeal (EWCA) Civil Division (CIV). The last number is the case number and may be followed by a paragraph number.

Neutral Citation

Criminal cases

With criminal cases, the first party is the prosecutor and is referred simply as ‘R’ which is an abbreviation of the Latin word Regina which means the Queen. If there was a King, the word would be Rex so it would still be an ‘R’. The second word is the surname of the defendant. If the case is taken to appeal, the appeal would be in the name of the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) rather than the Monarch. The names are followed by the year and the volume and name of the law report and page number where the case is found within the report.

Criminal Case Reporting