Save Time: Start With Secondary Sources

Here’s a tip I always mention when I’m introducing students to the legal research process: you will save time if you start by consulting the leading secondary sources on your topic, rather than going straight to the legislation or case law.

Ludmila B. Herbst, Q.C., wrote the following about the importance of starting with secondary sources in her 2006 CLE BC course paper “Effective Legal Research”:

A vast array of material is available in which authors (both learned and not so learned) have assembled and synthesized the case law and statutory materials applicable to particular issues. Make use of these where possible. Both the commentary and the footnotes may direct you to applicable case law, legislation and other secondary sources and may suggest analogous areas of law to research. In addition, secondary sources set out principles on which your answer may ultimately need to be based if primary authority cannot be located.

But where to start when you’re unfamiliar with the the leading texts? CanLII’s (formerly Cathie Best’s The Best Guide to Canadian Legal Research) advises researchers to start with a library catalogue:

As you gain experience, you will become familiar with the leading texts in various areas. If you do not know of a good text on the subject you are researching, the traditional approach is to conduct a keyword search in the library catalogue.

Not all library catalogues will cover all topics though, and if you’re just starting out it’s difficult to know which source is considered to be the most authoritative on a given topic. Fortunately, has gone through the work of creating lists of suggested leading texts. And if you need to dig a little deeper into your topic, use the checklist below to ensure you haven’t missed a thing!

This checklist, which was inspired by’s more exhaustive version, can also be downloaded as a Word doc here. You are welcome to edit it and repurpose it.

  • Encyclopedias
    • Canadian Encyclopedic Digest (CED) on Westlaw or in print
    • Halsbury’s Laws of Canada on LexisNexis Quicklaw or in print
  • Leading texts
    • Check your library’s catalogue, which will include both print books and ebooks
    • Suggested textbooks from CanLII’s
    • Suggested textbooks from Use the topics down the left side of the page to navigate.
    • “Selected Secondary Sources” from the back pages of each Halsbury’s volume
    • Research guides from other law libraries. Bora Laskin Law Library currently offers the strongest lists of suggested texts.
    • “Selective Topical Bibliography” from The Practical Guide to Canadian Legal Research by Nancy McCormack. This starts on page 503 of the 2015 ed.
  • Journals and seminar papers, which may be useful when encyclopedias and leading texts are outdated or don’t provide enough detail about your jurisdiction or topic.
    • Local CLE resources, such as BC’s CLE Online course materials
    • Journals on HeinOnline
    • Journals on Westlaw
    • Journals on LexisNexis Quicklaw
    • Articles found via Google Scholar
    • Local specialized indexes, such as Courthouse Libraries BC’s BC Legal Literature Index
  • Memorandums and factums on the same topic
    • Your organization’s internal knowledge management database
    • Prior advice from the same legal file
    • Documents from colleagues who have worked in the area before

Bronwyn Guiton (@BronwynMaye)

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