How To Read A Law Report?

The goal of reading of law report is to equip with the knowledge from such reports that helps in further understanding of a legal topic. For enhancing the research skill as a practicing lawyer the essentials of a law report have to be a clear picture in the mind. However, the most struggling part as a student is to identify a law report as various terms such as Judicial opinion, Judicial decision, digest, summaries etc are found while reading and it often gets discouraging and confusing as the report gets complex and not understood easily. This work focuses on providing a guide to students for better understanding of research and a easy passage to understand how to read a law report. The paper reaches its goal by two parts; Part I discusses the meaning and anatomy of a law report and Part II provides a guide for ‘What to read in a law report and tips to preliminary examine the significance of report for your research work.’

Meaning and Anatomy of Law Report:

The two questions that serves the purpose of our understanding is firstly, what is a law report and secondly, which law report is beneficial for your research work.

For answering the first question we need to have a deeper understanding of what is a precedent. A law report is merely not any judgement of the court but those judgments that serves the purpose of a Precedent. Precedents are those judgments which bind the court and its lower court through its judicial decision. While comparing the usefulness of judgements in to serve the purpose of your research attention should be paid at ‘ratio decidendi. It can be broadly divided into two types: full Judgment and case notes, opinions, summary of judgments etc.

For any law report to attract legitimacy it should have all the prospective essential for being cited that justifies its citation:

Court while reading any judgment the first and the foremost task is to read the court where the judgment was delivered and classify on the basis of that if it significant for your work or not. The court name is identified by the volume no. or the citation of the case.

Title or Caption it is generally the name of the parties of the case e.g Jones v. Smith. It should be noted that in a criminal case the State brings the case and it is essentially a party e.g Union of India v. Hari Singh Khosla

Date to avoid confusion and for the purpose of record, full date of any judgment is important to be mentioned as many cases exist with the same name or the same case goes for appeal to the higher court.

Judge the identity of a judge and the strength of the bench is an important element of a law report for the purpose of making the research work strong.

Catchwords these are the keywords which are sued in judgments and give the gist of the nature of case. e.g Crime-murder-evidence-section 299. It serves the purpose of filtering case at glance.

Headnote It must be not confused that the headnote is the rule established by the judgment but is the fact summary of the case. It consists of the fact from the perspective of understanding of a Judge or what the Judge found revelant to be highlighted in the case.1

Cases cited by the court it is represented by ‘cited by’,’cite to’. To reach the final verdict in a case the Judges used the previous judgments which are relevant in the instantaneous case. Sometimes it also includes ‘cited by’ which indicated later in which case this judgment has been cited to give a final judgment. It helps in understanding the importance and ambit of reach of a particular case and the usefulness of such case in your reach work.2

Principle of law It contains the legal principle to the Judges’ understanding that has been applied by the Judges to reach the particular judgment of the case. It showcases the reasoning that is derived from a source of law that the Judge use to resolve the dispute of the case.

Judgment It forms the lengthiest part of a law reports which quotes important judgements form the previous cases used by the Judge along with the understanding from such case. Sometimes, it also contains the brief facts of the cited case and quotes used by the Judges to establish a new rule in the instantaneous case.

Order at the end of the law report establishes the action taken by court of the case. For example, if the court upheld or reversed the lower court’s decision in case of appeal.3

Reporter it ensures the reliability of the source. It should be reported by a lawyer who is identified by the source of publication or from the report itself.4

Guide for easy understanding of Significance of Law Report for your Research Work:

The Case Citation: The citation of any case is represented by the name of parties followed by the volume no. , year and the court in which the case is decided. It serves the purpose of a unique code and makes it easier to be searched to obtain a full judgment. It sometimes also consist of the law book in which the opinion is published and therefore the reader knows exactly where to look for the original opinion.5

Good law: the next step is to read the facts of the case carefully and match if it is similar to your problem. Then go through the procedural history of the case which gives the timeline and the update of the case. From here you can simply identify if the case is pending or has been filed for an appeal.

When you find a judgment which will strengthen your argument it is important to check if it is a ‘good law’, meaning it must not have been overruled in appeal or stayed or overruled by another judgment by a larger bench. The importance of reading all the dissenting opinion is as important as reading what was held in a particular case. In case a dissenting opinion is put forward in law reports then understanding the need of it must be taken seriously to reach to an agreement amongst a majority of the judges which establishes the ration in a precedent.6

Ratio decidendi and orbitor dicta: ‘ratio decidendi’ means reason of the decision or the rule of the case. If you have found it then it’s the bull’s eye of your research as this forms the precedent and serves as legal opinion for further similar legal problems. However, at the end of a case if the bench consists of more than one judge, the authoritative judge gives the opinion and the other judge may give the majority decision which other approach to the same conclusion and often give shorter judgment called ‘concurring decision’. While the other time a judge may give a ‘dissent’ which constitute the minority decision or centre reasoning to why the judgment is flawed. However, dissenting opinion is cannot be solely used to make your arguments strong but can be used to support your criticism. In books and reports where they are cited offers a strong viewpoint that should be analysed as they represent the fatal problem in the judgment which may serve as a new rule of law in later cases.7

On the other hand ‘orbitor dictum’ means “things said by the way”. These are the opinion of the court which does not form the part of ratio but have persuasive value, especially when made by the Supreme Court. the ultimate goal is to search for the ratio but orbitor dicta forms a supporting pillar for your doubt or criticism. It is diificult to differentiate between orbitor dicta and ratio as it forms the reasoning later the ration but one can think of orbitor dicta as a hypothetical example similar to the facts which form the basis of ratio. See Carlill v. Carbolic Smoke Ball Company.8

Facts of case: the students often underestimate and skip the study of facts to the judgment. However, it is a fatal mistake as the judgment or the law cannot be truly understood without going through the facts. Only such precedents strengthen the research work where the fast of the precedent and the problem are similar. This is also to be understood that law cannot be applied if you do not know the origin of the reasoning behind the ratio.

While researching one often come across judgments that may of not what one is looking for along with factual difference in the problem at hand the precedent. n such circumstances the precedent can be used to show why such judgment shall not be referred to in the instantaneous case.

NOTE: It should be kept in mind that this paper is a guide and all parts of citation may not be present in this work and the better understanding is developed by reading of different case reports. With practice it keeps becoming easier to navigate and understand the language and use of the reports.


1, [Accessed on 26 of May, 2020].

2 Litigants Margarita Dvorkina & Julie Macfarlane, Reading and Understanding Case Reports: A Guide for Self-Represented, The National Self-Represented Litigants Project, September 2017. [Accessed on 26 of May, 2020].

3 Professor Orin S. Kerr, How to Read a Judicial Opinion: A Guide for New Law Students, George Washington University Law School Washington, DC (August 2005). Available at

4, [Accessed on 26 of May, 2020].

5 Supra 3.

6, [Accessed on 26 of May, 2020]

7 Supra 3.

8 imer.pdf [Accessed on 26 of May, 2020]

This article is authored by Aastha Singh, Second-Year, B.A. LL.B(Hons.), Student at Chanakya National Law University

Also Read – Meaning and Essentials of Judgment under CPC

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