Traditionally, written decisions of the courts are given where a novel or important point of law arises. The influence of the European Convention on Human Rights and modern concepts of justice have made written judgments more common in cases in the higher cases.
In making its decision the Judge or Judges in a multi-judge Court will write written reasons as to their interpretation and decision of what the facts are and how the law applies. In either common law cases or cases based on the interpretation of statutes, the Courts will explain in a written decision which explains how the law is applied to the facts.
Many written legal judgments/decisions contain discussions of the law in the context of particular cases. Where a point of law is raised and there is the question as to what “correct” point of is, the Judge will typically review and discuss relevant previous cases or precedents.
The Judge may quote parts from written judgments and other Law Reports in setting out his understanding of the law concerned. The judge will then apply the law to the facts. The written judgment will thereby become a further legal precedent in relation to the principle of law concerned.
The key principles in Supreme Court and Court of Appeal decisions must be followed by the High Court. Similarly, the lower Courts such as the Circuit Court and the District Court must follow the High Court decisions on points of law. High Court decisions of one High Court Judge will be almost always followed by other High Court Judges.
The discussion of the law found in reported cases is an important source of common law. It is also the key source in relation to the interpretation of Statutes in the context of the particular facts.
Sometimes written judgments will run to over a hundred pages or more of discussion and exploration of the law. It is a definitive statement of law on the application to the facts of the case.
UK Printed Reports of Cases
In England and Wales, the Incorporated Council of Law Reporting has produced the official Law Reports since 1866. These are regarded as the most authoritative edition.
The All England Law Reports have been published since 1935. In addition, the All England Reports published a back catalogue of leading cases from the 16th century to 1935. The Weekly Law Reports have been published since the 1950s. Each covers most leading cases. Although not official, both are highly regarded.
After 1922, the Northern Ireland Reports have contained reports of cases in the Northern Ireland High Court and Court of Appeal.
Irish Printed Reports of Cases
The Irish reports and Irish Law Reports Monthly are the principal bound and paper reports available.
The Irish Council for Law Reporting has published the Irish Law Reports since 1866. Since the 1830s, there had been several series of law reports, reflecting the various branches of the High and Superior Courts. For example, there was a separate Equity / Chancery, Common law and Exchequer Reports. Since the unification of the various branches of the High Court at the turn of the 20th century the Irish Reports have been published in one, two, three or four annual volumes.
The Irish Law Times Reports were published from the 1870s to 1980. For many years, it was incorporated into the Solicitors Journal. It was effectively replaced by the Irish Law Reports Monthly, which has been published since 1980. They are issued monthly in paperback form and in bound editions after year end.
Over the last 20 years, several legal publishers have published up to date and continuous publications on particular areas of law. A number of publishers such as the Irish Current Law Monthly Digest, Employment Law Reports, Taxation Reports provide judgment and legal information.
Many Irish cases are unreported and are available in unofficial catalogues of unreported cases in libraries. There are now regular journals and reviews covering 10 to 15 specialist legal areas.
Online Access to Cases
The internet has dramatically changed the availability of law reports. Law reports were and are typically expensive, being sometimes several hundred Euro per volume. The internet has now made a vast quantity of legal material available online free.
The Irish Courts Service now publish Irish Court decisions very quickly after they are issued. They are published on courts.ie.
The British and Irish Legal Information Initiative (\”Bailii”) publishes most English, Irish and Northern Irish Court decisions since 1996 on its site. In addition, it also publishes the Statutes of the respective jurisdictions as well as numerous other legal sources.
In the case of reported decisions in official Law Reports, a headnote of the case is usually prepared. This headnote t sets out the basic facts and the decision on the law. It is not authoritative and may in some cases be misleading. However, it is a useful means of setting out the principles referred to or decided by the case.
The headnotes themselves are compiled in Digests under subject matters and published every 10 to 15 years or so. The Irish Digests are published approximately every 10 to 15 years and cover the headnotes of all case in the Irish Reports, the Irish Law Reports Monthly and before that the Irish Law Times Reports on the Northern Ireland Reports.
In England and Wales, the Digest publishes all headnotes on classified areas of law running back to the earliest times. The Digest contains volumes of headnotes categorised with reference to the subject matter of particular aspects and sub-categories of law. This is a very useful method of researching existing case law.