By Ken Fox, Research Librarian
The great thing about searching case law digests, as opposed to full-text judgments, is that your search terms are applied only to a brief summary of the decision, not a full account of the case details. You get fewer results, and they are of higher quality. Since the cases have been digested, I will refer to this as “eating our cake.”
The great thing about searching full-text case law is that you can be very picky about what combination of legal concepts and specific factual elements you want to include in your search, and still get some results, whereas with a digest search you might get none. Full-text searching allows you to zero in on that small pool of cases that have closely matching facts. Since we are searching undigested jurisprudence, let’s call this “having our cake.”
BUT what if you are researching a well-trodden legal topic, such as oral contracts, and want to zero in on a particular factual detail such as one of the contractors being deceased?
For the case law authorities on oral contracts, a good place to start would be The Canadian Abridgment, available as a “finding tool” in WestlawNext Canada’s LawSource package. If you are a Saskatchewan lawyer, you can access this service through the Member Resources page.
Navigate to the Canadian Abridgment Digests, and click on “CON Contracts.” Now look to the right side of the page, the search box that says “Search Abridgment Headings and Subheadings”
Then enter “oral contracts” in the search bar. The system takes you directly to your term nestled under the wings of its parent concepts:
Click on the heading, which will take you to a list of 240 digests.
The next step is locating cases within that pool of 240 that deal with the narrow issue of contract validity in the event of the death of a contractor. Let’s try using the “Search within results” box at the top of the left pane – enter the term “deceased,” and click on “Apply filters” –
There are only two results.
Are these the only two cases then? Likely not. So the next step might be to go back to the WestlawNext home page and try a “Federated” (full-text) search of case law. But, you know that there will be thousands of cases using the phrase “oral contract” – you really wanted to limit your search to that pool of cases that the legal editors have classified under the heading “Oral contracts.”
You despair, because you know there is no way you can have your cake AND eat it too. Well, what if I told you that there is?
A few months ago, Thomson Reuters added a feature to WestlawNext called “Browse Legal Topics.” Look for it on the home page among the “Finding Tools.”
Browse Legal Topics applies the same main system of headings as the Abridgment, but expands the taxonomy and range of document types to cover all areas of law (not just litigation).
Just as before, select “Contracts” and find your way through browsing or searching, to our same subsubsub-heading, “CON.III.1.g Oral contracts.” There are 239 cases, as well as (depending on the scope of your subscription) other types of documents.
Click on “Cases and decisions.” We appear to be right back where we were when using the Abridgment (less one case, possibly because the Abridgment is slightly more current).
At this point, you are asking me, Ken, why have you taken us down this same path again – we need cases on a particular factual matter, to search the whole cake, but we are back among the digests, where all the cake has been eaten.
But, has it?
Go ahead and type “deceased” into that “Search within results” again, and click “Apply filters.”
Yes, when you use the “Browse Legal Topics” feature, you can take full advantage of the Abridgment taxonomy AND search the full text of the complete LawSource case law database.
Now, the astute researchers among you might point out that, for the present problem, I might have achieved similar results with a proximity search of the full-text database (e.g., adv: “oral contract”/s deceased). And some very wise person is no doubt muttering that Abridgment classification headings can be added as a filter to federated search results. Well done! Let’s keep it real, right?
But the truth is, I chose this scenario for convenience, and I urge you not to dismiss this tip as a cheap trick. By combining the old-world utility of digests and taxonomies with advanced modern searching technology, you can add multiple new powers to your legal sourcery arsenal, and should learn to use them.