Using a Canned Search to Find Definitions

A frequently asked question is “what does this word mean in a legal context?” In my last SLAW tip, I talked about using legislation to find definitions, in particular interpretation acts. However, legislation cannot define every term used, so if you can’t find your term in the legislation, you may want to check if it has been judicially defined. There are a number of books of words and phrases listing judicial definitions (and truly it is a wonder what has been defined), but, as with legislation, these books cannot be exhaustive.

If you can’t find your term in either legislation or books of words and phrases, you will have to search the case law. I use the following canned search to find definitions:

TERM /3 (define OR mean OR interpret)

For example, if you want to find out if the word “martini” has ever been defined by the courts, use this search on CanLII with the word “martini” substituted for TERM.

Since CANLII automatically expands search terms, you don’t have to use wildcards to find all the variants of your search terms (e.g. mean, means, meaning). However, if you are using this search in one of the paid databases, you will have to add the database’s truncation symbol (e.g. defin! OR mean! OR interpret!).

Thank you to Bronwyn Guiton for suggesting this as a SLAW tip.


  1. Great tip! I did a CanLII search on “TERM /3 (define OR mean OR interpret)” and bookmarked it, so now all I have to do is click the bookmark and then replace “TERM”.

    Thank you.

  2. Nice to see a military justice (court martial) decision come out on top!

    Rafuse M.D. (Captain), R. v., 2007 CM 1008 (CanLII)— 2007-04-03

    Courts Martial — Canada (Federal)

    wine — vermouth — beer — beyond a reasonable doubt — prosecution

  3. For those with access to Westlaw, in the Advanced Search for Statutes & Regulations there is an option to search for a defined term within statutes and/or regulations.

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