How to Research Case Law. Whether you're employed in the legal field or involved in a lawsuit, chances are that, sooner or later, you'll need to research case law. Case law is developed when judges interpret and apply the laws to the cases that come before them. These cases and the decisions issued by the judges are compiled in case reporters and stored in law libraries and legal databases. Here are some tips to help you research case law should the need ever arise.
Identify the issue. The first step in researching case law is to identify the issue you are trying to resolve. Are you trying to determine if the law supports your petition for child support? Or, do you want to research defenses to a DUI? Jot down your issue and circle those words that are relevant to your particular issue.
Determine jurisdiction. Laws vary from state to state. You need to consult the case law of the jurisdiction relevant to your case to ensure that you research the laws relevant to your particular issue. Cases are generally organized in reporters according to the jurisdiction in which they arose (for example, the Pacific Reporter, Southeastern Reporter, etc.).
Browse the index. Using the key words you circled when you identified your issue, search the index of your jurisdiction's reporter. Reporters are found in any local law library. The index is a separate volume (usually many separate volumes) than the case reporter and will organize the cases alphabetically, by issue and party name.
Use online resources. There are some websites that will let you search for cases for free. The most popular include Findlaw and the Cornell Legal Information Institute website. If you are looking for a very famous case (for example, Brown v. the Board of Education), you may just be able to find it by using a search engine.
Pay attention to the case citation. Each case has a special citation. Knowing the citation of the case you are looking for will help you find it more easily. Case citations generally begin with the volume number, the volume title and the page number of the volume where the case will be found.