FROM A FORMER LAW LECTURER
To Help You Survive Law School
Writing case notes and summaries is one of the very first tasks you learn in law school. Most students are confused about how to write a case summary because the lecturers often cover this topic during lectures only briefly. There is also a massive misconception amongst law students who believe that they can only create a good case note if they read the case report in full. That’s definitely not true and this article will prove it to you, so keep reading!
Step 1: Find out whether the case is relevant to your exam
First things first. Because you are likely to have plenty of reading to do every week, it is important that you prioritise which cases to learn about. In order to do that, whenever approaching studying for a new topic, you should look through the lecture slides and note down any cases which were mentioned in there. If your slides mention around 7 to 8 cases, then you will have to learn about each of them. But if there are plenty more cases than that mentioned in the slides, then you will have to select up to 7 or 8 which you will study. Try to pick those cases which your lecturer talked about extensively during the lecture or which they said were important for the topic as a whole.
Step 2: Read up on the case in a revision guide
Rather than going straight for the case report, start by reading up on the case in a revision guide or a “basics” book. Those types of guides and books are usually very short and contain summaries of the key definitions, cases and statute sections on each topic along with brief explanations of the basic concepts in the topic. If the case you selected is important for the topic then you should be able to find a short summary on it in this type of a book. Those couple of sentences should give you a fairly good basic understanding of what the case is about. In most cases, a revision guide or a “basics” book will discuss the point of law established in the case. In some cases, it might also include a description of the facts of the case and the decision. Note down a summary of the information which the book will include on your selected case.
Step 3: Read up on the case in a textbook
Sometimes the few sentences about a case mentioned in the revision guide or a “basics” book will not be enough to make you fully understand what the case was about and appreciate its impact. In such cases, in order to strengthen your case note and make it more understandable, you should read up on the discussion about that particular case which was included in the “cases and materials” textbook. Those types of textbooks are usually big and heavy. They contain extensive discussions about cases and statute sections as well as extracts from judgements. If your case is particularly important for the topic, it is likely that there will be around a quarter up to half of a page in your textbook full of information about it. Read that information and fill in any gaps in your case note. Now, the important thing here is not to try to summarise every single thing that was mentioned in the textbook about the case. Only note down information which helps you to understand better what the case is about rather than confusing you further.
Step 4: Identify the point of law established by the case
The point of law established by a case is a legal rule which was created (or reaffirmed) in a particular decision of the judges. Some textbooks refer to it as ratio or ratio decidendi. In short, it is the most important part of the decision which can be applied to other cases, even those with slightly different circumstances. The point of law is usually formulated as a single sentence. For example, the point of law established in a contract law case of Harvey v Facey is this: A specific communication can only be amount to a legally binding offer if it is clear that the person who made it had the intention to be bound by it. As you can see, the rule is general enough that you would be able to easily apply it to pretty much any contract law case. You don’t even need to know what were the facts of the Harvey v Facey case in order to do that. Once you figure out the point of law established by the case you are looking at, make sure to put it down in your case summary.
Step 5: Summarise the facts of the case
Now that you know the point of law established in the case it is important to learn about the facts of the case. The facts of the case are a few sentences which describe exactly what happened in the case, who took whom to court and what they were looking to achieve. The facts of the case will also tell you what was the key legal issue in the case, i.e. the most important question which the judges had to answer in order to give their decision. For example, in the case of Harvey v Facey the legal issue would be: When does a particular communication amount to a legally binding offer? The legal issue in the case of Harvey v Facey was pretty straightforward, but there are some cases which will have several legal issues and that can make things complicated. If this is the case and if all of those legal issues are important, then the revision/”basics” book and/or the textbook will mention them. You should write all of them down in your case note for further reference.
Step 6: Find out the decision in the case
This last but one step of writing a case note is pretty straightforward. All you have to do is figure out what was the decision in the case. But you have to make sure that you write down enough information about the decision in your case note in order to help you understand it when you will be reading through your case summary in the future. That’s why you should try to avoid writing very short and generic things which don’t give you much information, such as “the case was decided for the defendant”. Instead, go for something that relates to the central legal issue in the case and that helps you understand exactly what happened. For example, in the case of Harvey v Spacey the decision was that there was no contract concluded between the parties because the communication made by the offering party was not clear enough to amount to a legally binding offer.
Step 7: Structure your case note
Finally, since you have gathered a lot of information about the case, it is important to go through it again, structure and prioritise. For that reason, it is probably better if you take your notes on a laptop rather than in a notebook. That way you can easily delete and change anything that will turn out to be irrelevant. The final case note for each case should be up to 3-4 sentences long. Some case notes will include only a 1-sentence point of law, others will include only the facts of the case and the decision. Yet others will contain all of that information. It is up to you to decide which information you should keep in your case summary. A good rule of thumb is that whenever a point of law for a specific case is mentioned in a revision guide/”basics” book or a textbook, it should be included in the case note. The facts and decision of a case should definitely be included in the case note if your seminar materials or mock exam questions refer to circumstances similar to those in the case you are creating the note for.