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Legal Research

A starting point for legal research.

Welcome to Legal Research!

Welcome the the Legal Research Guide! Start here to plan your search strategy and understand what type of legal information you need. Then use the menu on the left to navigate the search process for legal research and find helpful resources for completing assignments.

The Basics

Statutory or case law?

There are two primary categories of law:  Statutory Law and Case Law

Statutory law consists of the statutes created by legislatures. Case law is the process whereby legal disputes are decided by judges.

Statutes and Regulations

The Canadian legal system uses both legislation made by governments and cases decided by judges as sources of law. There is a special law called the Criminal Code for serious offences such as theft, assault, homicide, etc. All of the other laws are civil law, and deal with topics such as contracts, divorce, wills, etc.

Legislation includes laws, also referred to as acts or statutes, that are passed by either the federal parliament or a provincial legislature, and regulations, sometimes called secondary or delegated legislation. Regulations are made under the authority of a 'parent' act, and there may be several sets of regulations under one act.

Types of Law

Federal or Provincial? The Canadian Constitution divides areas of activity between the federal and provincial government. Some of these areas are exclusive - for example, the postal service is a federal area of activity, while education is a provincial matter. Some areas overlap, so that both levels of government may make laws and policies. The environment is an example of an area of dual jurisdiction.

It is essential that you determine whether the laws that deal with your legal problem are federal or provincial. This information is usually given in textbooks and legal encyclopedias. Provincial and federal government web sites usually contain online versions of statutes and public case law that emanate from the jurisdiction. Most of these online sources can be searched by subject or by the name of the act or law you want. 

Public or private? Laws or statutes (as well as bills) are categorized as "public" if the law is one that applies to everyone, for example, the Criminal Code. These are laws "of general application". Laws can also be "private", meaning they apply to a specific person, place, or corporation. For example, city charters are often provincial statutes, but only apply to the specific city. If you cannot find an act that you know exists, it may be because it is a "private" act so you need to look in a slightly different place.

In general, legislation passed during a calendar year is published in that year's statute volume, with the acts being numbered sequentially 1, 2, 3, etc. as chapters. Typically the public statutes are first, and any private statutes appear later in the volume.