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Law Search Guide: Law Search Example

This guide will show you how to search a law topic using quick and simple methods.

Jill and June are twin law students undertaking their first research assignment. They are given this question:

Select one case of your choice delivered by the High Court of Australia, write a case note on the decision. In your case note explain the facts of the case, identify the legal issues, explain the outcome, and explain if and how the case changed the law. 

Even though they are twins, they have two very different ways of searching for their assignments. Read below about how each twin undertakes their search. What method will you try for your assignment search?


Jill reads through the question several times, so she is very clear on what she has to do.

She reads through the marking rubric in her unit and attends the lecture where her lecturer explains how it is important for this topic to search beyond the case. Students will need to use journal articles to help them understand the case and see if and how it has changed the common law. 

Jill understands that searching for the assignment is only one aspect of the overall task. She uses the Assignment Scheduler to write up her study schedule to include enough time to search, write and proofread before submitting before the due date.  

Web search

Jill starts her search with a quick Google search and chooses the keywords 'famous high court case australia'.

Jill clicks the second link Top 10 Most Influential Court Cases of the Last 40 Years. She notes that the page was created by The College of Law, which may be ok as an initial source, but it was published in 2014, so won't have any more recent cases.

From the list, Jill decides to choose an older case as it may be easier to find information on it as there may be more time to publish information on it. Reading through the list of cases, Jill is interested in the cases of Dietrich v The Queen from 1992. She quickly looks through the summary of the legal issues, and she thinks the right to a fair trial will be interesting to research. 

Jill then types 'dietrich v the queen' in Google and reads a Wikipedia entry that gives her the citation [1992] HCA 57 and a quick overview of what the case was about.

Searching for Case Law in Westlaw Australia 

Jill then wants to check out a more detailed legal summary of the case to understand the legal issues. Jill remembers the Library workshop she did early in the semester; Jill knows she can get some easy-to-read case summaries through Westlaw Australia.

Jill does a Google search for the Law Guide by typing the keywords 'Law Guide CDU' into the search box. The Law Guide is the first result, and Jill finds the link to Westlaw Australia on the page.

Jill copies and pastes the citation she found online into the citation search box, which brings her back to the case. From Westlaw Australia, Jill can read the case summary/digest, and she can also download the full-text case as a PDF.

Jill sees the PDF to the Commonwealth Law Reports copy, and she downloads this version as it is the authorised report and the one she will need when using the AGLC.

She saves it to a folder titled 'Assignment 1' on her laptop. Jill knows it is easier to save the case as a PDF now than to find all the sources again, so she creates a new folder for every assignment. Later she can print it out, highlight important parts of the case, and make her notes. 

To make a good case note, Jill wants to determine how the case is being used today. She goes back to the results in Westlaw Australia and uses the top menu in the case to see the history and negative treatments and citing references of the case. 

Searching for Journals in Google Scholar and Library Search  

Jill notes that she will have to go beyond just finding the case and will need to find out more about the right to a fair trial. She clicks on 'Citing References' at the top of the Westlaw Australia page and selects 'secondary sources' from the drop-down menu. From here Jill can find secondary material to help her analyse the case. 

Jill also quickly searches in Google Scholar using the keywords: "fair trial" "Dietrich v the queen". Jill uses double quotation marks to group her keywords together for better results. Jill selects three journal articles:

All of the articles have quick summaries at the top so Jill can scan through them easily; experts write them, and the citation details at the top of the articles make them easy to cite using the AGLC. 

Jill realises that she may need more resources for her assignment, so she searches Library Search from the Library home page. She types in the keywords: 'right fair trial australia'. Jill selects some additional articles: 

Jill saves them in her assignment folder to read later. She chooses these articles as they are about Dietrich, and in academic journals. These are useful articles for Jill as they help her analyse what the case was about, provide her with context, and explain the main legal issues.   


Jill has a good collection of resources and can now start writing. Jill reads through the material and makes notes.

She summarised the information in her own words and started to group the main ideas to form paragraphs in her essay. She uses the Resource Review Grid to help her summarise her resources ready to write. Jill plans out her essay using the AGLC Essay Template and makes sure she has covered all the topics needed for a case note. 

When Jill starts to write her assignment, she refers to the authorised version of the Dietrich case from the Commonwealth Law Reports; she mentions the primary sources of law, including the Australian Constitution and the other relevant cases. Jill also relies on academic-quality journal articles to help interpret legal issues. Jill doesn't rely on the information from her initial Google or Wikipedia search; she now has better resources. 

Jill finishes her writing a couple of days before the assignment is due. This gives her time to read through her essay a couple of times; she checks her references correctly using the AGLC and uses the AGLC Checklist to help her. After she has reviewed her essay a couple of times, Jill submits her assignment on time. 

Final Result 

Jill gets her mark back a couple of weeks later. She got an HD!  The comments on her essay indicate that she got excellent marks due to her quality research, her selection of resources, and the academic quality of her work. Jill is glad she saved time searching by starting with some easy searches and then building up to academic quality material; it saved her time reading and helped her pick out the legal issues.  


June reads through the assignment once and is really confused.

She is unsure where to start but hears from another student that they will look at the He Kaw Teh case. June decides that she will do this too.

June assumes that she has to talk about why the matter was in court, she hasn't been going to the lectures, but she will spend lots of time on this assignment and find lots of different resources to make up for it.  

Web Search 

June starts her search by typing the case name into Google and gets to the Wikipedia page He Kaw Teh v The Queen. June decides that this information summarises the case enough for her and decides to copy and paste the information into her essay. June cites Wikipedia and the source; she doesn't have time to learn the AGLC, so she pastes the link directly into the document.

June still isn't quite sure about what the main point of the case is but decides to get some information on drug trafficking in Australia as this seems to be the main issue. She knows she needs to go beyond just reading the case, as her sister Jill keeps reminding her.  

June does a Google Search by typing in 'what's the deal with drugs in Australia?' She finds some web pages, including information such as;

It takes a while for June to read through all the web pages, and she keeps searching to add more resources for her assignment. 

June knows referencing is important, so she records all her resources by copying the URL and pasting it into her references list at the end of her essay. This way, she will know where the web pages came from. 

June decides that she needs more information on the case, so she goes back and conducts a Google search using the case name. She finds a case summary of UniStudy GuidesShe can see that this information originally comes from a textbook but cites this website for the case.

June also finds some criminal law summary notes from a student VIP site, and some cram notes that briefly mention the case.

June does find a version of the case on Jade but gives up as the case is way too long to read through when she has to do all the research. 


June has spent a fair amount of time surfing the web and decides the quickest way for her to finish the assignment is to copy the best parts of her resources into her assignment to form her essay. When copying from one document to the next, June gets mixed up about which lines come from which sources, some have links to the websites, and some don't. 

June leaves the main part of the writing until the day before the assignment is due, so she cannot properly proofread or update her citations to fit the AGLC Style. 

Final Result 

June is very surprised when she receives a failing grade! Where did it all go wrong?

The comments on her paper reveal to June that she missed the main issue of the case. If June had spent more time reading through the rubric, she would have had a better understanding of how her case note was going to be marked. Attending the tutorials and lectures would have given context to the assignment, and it would have given June a chance to ask questions and clarify what she needed to do in the assignment. 

Even though June's case did involve importing heroin into Australia, the main legal issue was that of intent or 'mens rea' or intent. Searching skills are really important, but it would have helped June if she had been clear on what she had to research in the first place.

Similarly, because June didn't look at the authorised case, she didn't get the benefit of reading a full case summary. She also didn't have the benefit of having the case history and clear evidence that demonstrated if the case was still being used in the law today. 

June also lost marks because her resources were of poor quality; using the web/internet search for the initial stage of research is useful; however, when selecting resources to include in an academic essay, June would have been better off looking at academic sources to support her arguments.

June also lost marks by not following the AGLC. A list of URLs at the end of the essay led to her easily missing marks compared to placing them in the correct format. It also makes it hard for her marker to see the sources used and how they relate to each sentence. 

The most serious problem with June's essay was with what she was writing; she was mostly copying and pasting from the various sources she found without quotation marks and without analysis.

June should have used her own words, along with some limited quotations, to explain what the case was about. Copying and pasting from other sources, with or without citation, is poor academic practice. This has also raised an issue with plagiarism, and June may have breached academic integrity. She is called in to talk to her lecturer under the Student Breach of Academic Integrity Procedure.  

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