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Law research and writing skills: Writing case notes

What is a case note?

The term 'case note' can be confusing. Sometimes it means a summary, based on an analysis of a case. However, in law school assignments a case note often requires you to write both a summary and a critical analysis (essay) about a case. Check your assignment instructions carefully. If the assignment is divided into sections, with separate word limits and marks stipulated, then make sure you answer using these divisions. Check with your lecturer if you are unsure about the required structure.

case note assignmentYour assignment needs to be written in full: no dot points, no table format or any other note-taking style is permitted. The summary needs to be written in cohesive paragraphs, citing the given case, and using your own words throughout. In the summary you will need to: provide a brief overview of the facts and procedural history of the case, and then analyse the ratio of the judges. The analysis will be structured in essay format. It needs an introduction with a thesis statement, body with sub-headings and topic sentences for each paragraph, and a conclusion emphasising your argument. You will need to do research for the analysis/essay part of the case note. 

Complete this online tutorial on the Library's Research & Learning Online site, to learn how to research and write a case note assignment.

What goes into a case summary?

This is your understanding of the case in your own words. Write as briefly and succinctly as possible. A case summary should generally include:

  • the case citation (choose the most authoritative report series)
  • brief overview of the facts
  • type of court and procedural history of the case (for example, previous courts the matter was heard in, previous decision and who appealed)
  • judge(s)

and should then objectively cover the major aspects of the judgment, including:

  • the major arguments presented by counsel
  • ratio (legal reasoning) of the judge/s, including commentary on the arguments presented. 
  • overview of the decision

Read your assignment instructions carefully to make sure you are emphasising those areas highlighted by your lecturers. 

When you begin the case note, it can help to make notes for both the summary and the critique. The document below may assist you with note-taking for a case note assignment and writing the summary. It is intended to help your reading, but you will need to be selective about what you include in your summary. 

See below for an example of some notes taken for a case summary. Please note this is not a sample case summary. Your case note must be written in complete sentences and paragraphs, not by dot points or tables.

What goes into a case analysis?

A case analysis requires you to write critically, creating an argument supported by research and evidence. This part of a case note assignment may have a specific question/s or may ask you to consider the implications of the case more broadly. Check your assignment instructions carefully. This part of the case note requires you to think critically about the judgment, analyse the importance of the case and its implications, and put forward your own contention. As you read the case and research, it may help to look at whether the case represents a departure from previous decisions in this area of law, the different debates about either the case or this area of law, and whether there are any proposals for legislative reform. 

This is basically a research essay. All claims must be supported by evidence and referenced correctly. There must be a clear and logical argument defined by sub-headings. You should adopt a clear position from which to examine the significance of the case, so include a thesis statement in your introduction. In developing your argument, you will draw on the case and other materials (primary and secondary) to discuss the case.

Depending on the assignment, you should:  

  • look for one or more major features, either procedural or substantive, such as dissenting arguments, legislative base, use of evidence, cases presented, considered, applied etc. 
  • identify and analyse differences in the judges' reasoning. Pay particular attention to whether judges are dissenting on the law and/or application to the facts;
  • analyse the strengths and weaknesses of the case, especially those points that may give rise to policy amendments. 
  • comment on how the legal arguments made by counsel have been used by each judge.
  • discuss the impact or significance of a case, carefully considering current legislation and precedent. Sometimes you have a very recent case to critique, so you need to go back to the legislation and to previous cases on the same topic.  
  • consider possible areas of legislative reform, if included in the instructions.

Published case notes

Most law journals regularly publish case notes, especially on recent decisions. You can find example of case notes in:

For these journals, you need to search for the case name (use the index for print volumes), then check whether the document is a case note. See an example.

Another approach is to use a case citator, such as CaseBase or FirstPoint, to find the case and associated commentary. The articles referred to may be case notes or more general commentary covering the legal issues involved in the case.