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Law research and writing skills: Writing case notes

case note assignment

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

What is a case note?

The term 'case note' can be confusing.  Sometimes it means a summary, based on an analysis of the case.  However, it can also mean a summary plus a critical commentary.  Check the assignment instructions.  If the assignment is divided into sections, with separate word limits and marks stipulated, then make sure you answer using these divisions.  You may need two, three or even four separate sections.  If these divisions are not stipulated, then you may combine the discussion using the topics as guidelines. Check with your lecturer, if in doubt.

Regardless of the structure,  your 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.  The key sections involve analysing the ratio.  The critique will be structured in an essay format - introduction with thesis statement, body with sub-headings and topic sentences per paragraph, conclusion emphasising your argument. 

What goes into a case summary

This is your understanding of the case in your own words (so quotes are not needed), as briefly and succinctly as possible (aim at less than 10% of the word count, or else proportional to the marks).  It should include (order may vary):

  • the case citation (choose the most authoritative report series)
  • parties (legal terminology) and brief facts
  • type of court and history of the case
  • date(s) 
  • judge(s)

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

  • the major arguments presented by counsel
  • ratio per judge, including commentary on the arguments presented
  • decision.

Read your assignment instructions carefully to make sure you are emphasising those areas highlighted by your lecturers.    Make your initial notes on a case, with some 'prompts' to move from the summary to the critique. This document 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.

What goes into a case critique?

This has more marks, so you need to write analytically, creating an argument. This section is your opinion on the case and the judgment, analysing why you consider the case important.  As you're reading and preparing your notes, you should be recording 'grey' areas, arising from specific aspects of the decision. You may need to research the legislation and pay particular attention to the cases mentioned in the judgment. 

This is basically a research essay, with all claims substantiated and referenced, and with 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 to discuss why the case is significant..

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. 
  • 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.
  • identify and analyse differences in the judges' reasoning.
  • 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.

Law study hacks case notes

Published case notes

Most law journals regularly publish case notes, especially on recent decisions.  You can choose:

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.