Fundamentals of Legal Research
Adam J. McKee, Ph.D.
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From Facts to Legal Question
The strategy best suited to the task of legal research depends to some degree on the research purpose. Academic writers may want to describe the law in a broad way, covering many subtopics along the way. Most applied legal research deals with a set of facts, and those facts have given rise to legal questions. The distinction between academic writing and professional legal practice can be blurred when academic writers are attempting to answer questions about specific issues (such as police procedure). If there are specific facts that can be taken into account, then this is the obvious starting point for legal research.
Facts can come from many places. Clients can be interviewed. Witnesses can be interviewed. Official documents can provide factual information. Regardless of the source, the legal researcher must divide all of the facts into three basic categories: There are those facts that are irrelevant, those that are relevant, and those that are explanatory. The most daunting task facing the novice legal researcher can be eliminating the legally irrelevant facts so that the proper focus can be placed on the legally important facts, and the facts that further explain the legally relevant ones. This means that the facts should guide the researcher to the legal questions, but the relevant facts will not be apparent without some knowledge of the area of law under consideration. This means that the first task of the legal researcher is often a very broad effort at familiarization with an area of law. Textbooks and other legal treatises can be very valuable for this purpose.
Relevant facts are features of a case that are significant in a legal sense and thus cannot be overlooked or ignored. If you remove the fact from consideration, do the legal outcomes change significantly? If there is a significant change, then the fact is relevant. Take the following factual statement for example: “After a heated argument, Fred shot and killed Joe last Friday night.” Under analysis from the vantage point of the criminal law of murder, the fact that Fred did the shooting is relevant. The fact that Joe was shot is certainly relevant. The fact that Joe was killed is relevant. The facts that it happened on a Friday and that it happened at night are not legally relevant to the homicide statute. The fact that the shooting followed an intense argument supplements and explains the more legally relevant facts.
Once the relevant facts have been identified, the search for primary sources can begin. This should be an inclusive search. Courts may have decided issues under similar facts in the past, and these are binding law under the doctrine of stare decisis. Statutes may also provide rules that govern similar factual situations. A tricky element of this process is coming up with a “legal label” for your factual situation. This is tantamount to identifying your search terms. That is, you have to identify the language that the law uses to describe your particular legal problem. Once this is accomplished, searching through cases and codes for relevant law is a relatively easy task.
Modification History File Created: 08/08/2018 Last Modified: 06/13/2019
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