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Legal Research

Fundamentals of Legal Research

What is precedent?

In the common law system, legal principles used to resolve disputes in previously decided cases are used as precedent to decide cases with similar legal issues in the future.

The purpose of case law research is to find relevant precedent.  You present the court with case law that is favorable (hopefully) to your side and explain how it applies to your client's situation.  (Of course, your opposition is doing the same thing....)

Several options are open to a court when deciding whether to treat a case as precedent to decide a legal issue.

  • Follow – Agree that a case law is precedent for your issue (of course, the precedent still has to be favorable to your client to help…)
  • Reject – Disagree that a case law is a precedent for your issue*
  • Distinguish - Agree that case law seems like precedent for your issue and explain why it does not apply to current case
  • Modify - Modify the precedent
  • Overrule - Overrule the precedent (may only be done by same appellate court or supreme court)
  • *Chew you out/sanction you – Get mad at you for citing irrelevant cases/failing to cite relevant cases/wasting the court’s time

Be careful - not all cases available on Westlaw/Lexis/online are authorized by the court to be precedent. Unpublished decisions are not precedent even if you can find them on Wexisberg.