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Secondary Sources for Legal Research

A step by step guide for approaching legal research

Why use Secondary Sources?

This guide is designed to help you locate and utilise legal secondary sources such as bibliographies, dictionaries and encyclopaedias, commentary (looseleaf and online) and journal articles. Secondary sources are a great place to start when undertaking research in a topic you are unfamiliar with. Secondary sources provide an overview and different points of view on topics and can assist you in ascertaining the relevant legislation and significant cases on the topic. Below outlines a step-by-step process for approaching legal research.

Step 1. Consult bibliographies, legal dictionaries and encyclopaedias

Bibliographies contain useful lists of books, journals, journal articles and key primary sources on a range of topics. Legal dictionaries provide authoritative and often detailed definitions and place terms in their legal context. Legal encyclopaedias provide succinct summaries on the current state of the law. They are arranged by subject and include legislation and case law authorities in support of the statements.

Step 2. Textbooks

A useful point of reference, textbooks contextualise legal topics, provide background on, and examine specific areas of law. Textbooks may provide authoritative, scholarly and comprehensive treatment of topics, including references to relevant cases, legislation, other books and secondary sources. 

Step 3. Commentary services

Commentaries provide up to date and thorough commentary on an area of law and often include legislation, rules, practice directions and case law.  These full text online services (which were previously held in print as 'looseleaf services') provide authoritative statements of legal principles and topics, supported by and linking directly to case law and legislation. They are subject specific, written by legal experts in the field, and are more up to date than books or encyclopaedias.

Step 4. Journals and journal articles

Current scholarly opinion and analysis of specific aspects of your topic can be found in journals and journal articles. Academics or practitioners who have expertise in specific areas of law usually write the journal articles.  It is important to distinguish between scholarly literature in 'academic' journals and 'industry' literature. See the Journals & Journal Articles page for further details.

The Australian Guide to Legal Citation 3rd edition (AGLC3) is the standard citation style used in legal writing in Australian law schools. See Part III - Secondary Sources of the AGLC for citing secondary sources.