Types of Legal Material for Law Students

During your legal education, you will encounter various types of legal materials that will aid your understanding and research. This guide provides a detailed overview of these resources, distinguishing between primary and secondary sources.

Primary Sources of Legal Material
Primary sources are the authoritative texts that constitute the law itself. They are the foundation of legal research and are essential for understanding the legal framework.

Treaties are formal agreements between sovereign nations or international organisations. They can be either bilateral (between two countries) or multilateral (involving multiple countries). Treaties cover a wide range of legal areas, including trade, environmental protection, and human rights. To start your research on treaties, consult the organisation that created the treaty or a reliable source from one of the signatory countries. Key resources include the United Nations Treaty Collection and the databases of regional organisations like the European Union or the Organisation of American States.

Legislation comprises the laws enacted by legislative bodies and is divided into two types: primary legislation and secondary legislation. Primary legislation is the main laws passed by the legislature, such as Acts of Parliament or Congress and treaties that have been ratified. They form the backbone of the legal system. Primary legislation undergoes rigorous debate and scrutiny to ensure it reflects the intention of the legislature. Understanding the language and structure of these laws is crucial, as they often use specific legal terminology that differs from everyday language. Secondary legislation, also known as delegated or subordinate legislation, includes regulations, rules, and orders that provide detailed provisions to implement primary legislation. In the UK, these are called Statutory Instruments (SIs). Secondary legislation puts the meat on the bones of primary laws, offering more specific guidance and practical details.

Case Law
Case law, or judicial precedent, is a fundamental aspect of common law systems like that of England and Wales. It consists of judicial decisions from courts that interpret and apply statutes and legal principles. Under the doctrine of precedent, these decisions become part of the law and guide future cases. Case law is particularly significant in areas with little statutory law, such as contract, tort, and equity. Even in jurisdictions with comprehensive legislation, case law is crucial for interpreting statutes and filling in gaps.

Secondary Sources of Legal Material
Secondary sources provide analysis, commentary, and interpretation of the law. They help explain and contextualise primary legal materials.

Core Texts
Core texts, or textbooks, are fundamental resources for law students. They offer comprehensive coverage of specific legal topics, explaining principles, doctrines, and case law in a structured and accessible manner. For each area of law, there are numerous textbooks available, and your course reading list will often include recommended core texts. In addition to student textbooks, there are practitioner’s textbooks, which are often regarded as authoritative on a subject and are used by legal professionals for reference. Core texts provide detailed explanations of legal concepts, supported by references to statutes and case law. They often include hypothetical scenarios, analysis of judicial reasoning, and critical perspectives, making them essential for both understanding the basics and exploring complex legal issues.

Legal encyclopaedias offer organised summaries of legal principles and topics, providing a broad overview and linking to primary sources like cases and statutes. They sort the law into organised topics and provide thorough explanations with links to other sources. The most notable example for England and Wales is Halsbury’s Laws of England, a multi-volume work arranged by subject. The structure of Halsbury’s is very effective for building an understanding of the law. Each topic starts with an introduction and then the first subsection covers the law ‘in general’ before moving on to more specific areas. It provides basic definitions of the law with links to cases and legislation. For Scotland, a similar resource is the Stair Memorial Encyclopaedia.

Digests are collections of summaries of legal cases, legislation, and commentary, organised by topic or date. They provide concise overviews of legal materials on specific subjects, helping you quickly find relevant information without having to read full case judgments or statutes. Digests are particularly useful for preliminary research and getting a sense of the landscape in a particular legal area. They can save time by highlighting key points and providing quick references to primary sources and detailed analysis.

Legal articles are scholarly writings published in law journals and reviews. They offer in-depth analysis of specific legal issues, cases, or legislative developments. Articles are valuable for their detailed focus and contemporary perspectives. They are often published more quickly than books, making them an essential resource for current legal debates and recent changes in the law. As a law student, you are likely to read a number of articles when researching specific topics. Articles can focus on niche areas of law, recent judicial decisions, or legislative changes, providing detailed critiques and novel insights that might not be found in textbooks.

Dissertations are extensive research papers written by law students as part of their degree requirements. They involve original research and provide a thorough examination of specific legal topics. Dissertations can be valuable resources for understanding how to structure legal arguments and for finding innovative insights into complex legal issues. Reviewing past dissertations can also help you identify gaps in existing research and develop your own research questions. They are a record of in-depth research work and can be very useful for seeing how legal arguments are constructed and developed.

Engaging with various types of legal materials is crucial for a comprehensive legal education. Primary sources like treaties, legislation, and case law establish the legal framework, while secondary sources such as core texts, encyclopaedias, digests, articles, and dissertations provide necessary context, analysis, and interpretation. Mastering the use of these resources will enhance your legal research skills and deepen your understanding of the law.
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