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Selecting and Developing a Legal Research Topic

The purpose of this guide is to assist students who are writing a legal research paper and need help selecting a topic and developing a thesis.

What is a Novelty Check?

The purpose for checking the novelty of your thesis is to ensure that what you are about to write has not already been covered by another author in such a way that you cannot significantly add to the discussion.  In the United States, this is commonly referred to as a 'Pre-emption Check'.  A novelty or pre-emption check ensures a certain level of originality in your work.  However, it does not mean that your thesis must be completely original.  You may cover a similar topic as long as your approach is different.  If, however, your thesis does not add anything new to the scholarly literature on the topic, you should choose another thesis or topic.

Another purpose of a novelty check is to ensure that your thesis is relevant.  If you are writing about a pending legal case or a piece of legislation, you will want to make sure that the issue is not resolved and made obsolete before your paper is finished (see 'Check Status of Cases and Statutes').

In order to perform a novelty check, you will need to search the journal literature to see what has already been written on your topic.  If you search all of the indexes and databases listed on this page, you will notice that there is a lot of overlap among the sources. Each, however, covers some journals that the others do not.

By performing a novelty check, you will have completed a significant part of your research.  A literature review is a necessary step in the writing process, and by performing a novelty check you will have essentially completed a literature review on your topic.  Therefore, as you are checking the novelty of your thesis, keep good records of the material you review. 

Once you are satisfied that your thesis is sufficiently original, you must continue monitoring it to ensure that further developments do not pre-empt your topic without you knowing about it.  There are several services that will provide topical reports and monitor case developments for you, and they are listed below under 'Monitor Your Topic'.

Checking the Status of a Case

If the topic or the argument of your paper focuses on a particular legal case, you will want to check that the case is still good law.  For cases, check to see if there is any subsequent history, including if a petition for review or an appeal/special leave application has been filed.  You also want to check how your case has been treated in subsequent cases.  For example, whether it has been distinguished, followed, or overruled by a higher authority. 

Use the following subscription and free case citators to check the status of Australian cases.  For cases from other jurisdictions, refer to the Law Library's Case Citators list.

Checking the Status of an Act

If the topic or the argument of your paper focuses on an Act, you will want to check that the Act is still in force.  For example, has the Act been repealed, consolidated or are there pending/proposed legislation that could substantially change the Act?

Use the following resources to check that an Act is up-to-date and for any pending legislative activity that may amend the Act.  For foreign statutes, please review the Law Library's Research Guides for that particular country to learn more about legislation tracking in that jurisdiction.