A major task assigned to Trainee Solicitors is legal research. As a valuable skill, the ability to conduct legal research in a focused and efficient manner is an attribute firms will usually look for when interviewing potential candidates. The below steps will hopefully provide some useful guidance to any applicant tasked with such an exercise.
Before starting it is important to remember that there are four principal sources of UK law:
- Common law
- European Union law, and
- The European Convention on Human Rights.
It is advisable to start any legal research task by looking at what the primary resources say.
1. Look for and summarise any legislation relevant to the matter at hand:
Legislation.gov.uk is the official place of publication for newly enacted UK legislation, and therefore worth having bookmarked in your favourites!
Remember that legislation is ever evolving and it is always worth checking that you are looking at the most up to date statute. Online resources use various codes to indicate that an Act has been repealed – make sure you are familiar with these.
Furthermore, Acts of Parliament begin as bills. It is usually worth keeping an eye on whether there is a bill in the pipeline (particularly if Royal Assent is imminent) as it may well change the advice you give to a client.
2. Is there any relevant case law?
There are a number of factors to consider when looking at precedents including the following:
- How similar are the facts and legal issues of the precedent to your case?
- Is the case to be seen as binding or persuasive? Remember if a decision is made in a lower court, a higher court may use this ruling as guidance, but it is not legally obliged to follow it.
- Is there any possibility of an appeal to a higher court? How long ago was the ruling given? Are they within the time frame to be eligible for Appeal?
- Cross reference! Often cases will refer to other cases or legislation; make sure you have the full context by finding these references and seeing what they say.
- Can this case be used to either support or distinguish from the facts of your matter?
3. Fill in any gaps in your research by looking at secondary resources:
Once you have analysed the law, it is worth turning to secondary resources including practice notes, journal articles, and opinions from individual regulators (for example, the Charity Commission).
Although secondary sources can be incredibly helpful, you should always be cautious and check their accuracy with the primary resources.
4. Present your findings:
You will have been asked to either answer a specific question or find information on a certain topic. It is important that when presenting your findings you show that you have completed the task you have been set. A common format is to type up a memo, bullet-pointing the main areas of concern or interest.
Keep a research trail detailing all resources you have used. This will not only help you to write up your findings but it will also help the person for whom the research has been conducted, should points need to be checked or looked into in more detail.
Once you have answered the question and addressed the issues at hand, it would also be a good idea (where possible) to recommend any potential action points. This will show that you have been proactive and really thought about the consequences of your suggestions – as well as showing your supervisor that you’ve understood the topic in hand.