The main purpose of this post is to show how to find cases and other materials on the site of the British and Irish Legal Information Institute, better known as BAILII. There is a separate post explaining what BAILII is and where it came from: All about BAILII – part one: what it is and where it came from.
People mainly use BAILII for case law in one of three ways:
1. Clicking on a link supplied elsewhere, eg on Twitter, in a blog post, or from another legal website (eg ICLR). The link takes the user directly to the page on which the case is displayed.
2. Searching for a particular case, by entering the Neutral Citation, or the name of the case, or some other information into a search form.
3. Browsing for content according to which court it was in and when it was published.
We will explain 2 and 3 in more detail below, and end with our recommendations for the best approaches.
Searching for cases
There are a number of search forms on BAILII.
The first and simplest one is on the home page, and is basically a single field (omnibox) that does everything. There is a drop-down underneath which filters the search to a particular jurisdiction, but that is the only refinement. It will look for everything that matches the search term.
The disadvantage of this is that unless you have a very rare or precise word or phrase to put in, you will get a lot of results to sift through. So by entering the phrase “Johnny Depp” you may be able to limit your results to the four judgments arising out of that gentleman’s recent libel case, but if you were looking for cases on “breach of contract” you would get a list of 26,617 results.
As the above illustration shows, there are also more targeted search forms. These are:
Find by Case Citation: this is a single box which you can use to enter a neutral citation or traditional publication reference (eg  3 WLR 830).
Find by Case Title: This offers a series of single boxes depending on whether you want to input the title of a case (party names), a piece of legislation, or “other material”.
Case Law Search: This is an advanced search with a number of fields, together with a check-box list of individual courts. This is what the search form bit looks like:
The Citation field operates in the same way as the Find by Case Citation (above). If you have that, you probably don’t need anything else. Ditto the Case name field.
All of these words: this will find any case document that contains all of the words entered (ie not just some of them), in any order.
Exact phrase: this will find any case document that contains the exact phrase entered. Many other websites will do this if you enclose the phrase within double quotes: “this exact phrase”. This website just gives you a separate box to put it in.
Any of these words: this will find any case document that contains any one or more of the words entered, but not necessarily all of them or in any order or proximity.
Advanced query: this is for slightly more nerdy users. Hence the link for more detailed [Help]. It allows the user to enter search terms which (a) are automatically expanded to include other versions of the same word, based on the same root (eg discriminate, discrimination, discriminatory etc) and (b) can be used with Boolean “operators” and “connectors”. We’d recommend you study the relevant help before attempting to use these.
Optional dates: this enables you to limit the results to judgments given between two dates.
Sort results by: this enables you to sort the results in different ways, the default being Relevance. (It is not clear how this is determined.)
Highlight search terms in result: by default, the words used in the search query will be highlighted when the document is opened. But this can be switched off it is proves distracting.
Finally, there is the option to limit the results to cases from particular courts. This occupies the bottom half of the Case Law Search page, and is very useful. So for example, if you wanted to search only for family cases, you could check the boxes for the Family Division under High Court, and for the Family Court (both sections) and the family cases in the Magistrates’ Court and County Court:
You could also include the Court of Appeal (Civil Division) and the Supreme Court (formerly House of Lords) if you wanted to include any cases that had gone up on further appeal. (Some cases in the High Court will already be an appeal from a lower court.)
Bear in mind that there may be courts in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Ireland that hear family cases, if that was the subject matter of interest, and that if they had a human rights or cross-border element, you might want to look at the European Court of Justice or the Court of Human Rights. The point is, you decide which courts to look at and you don’t have to wade through a lot of results from courts and tribunals of no interest to your query.
Legislation Search: this is similar to the Case Law Search in that it offers a combination of several different fields plus a checkbox, not of courts, but of jurisdictions from which the legislation originates. So for example, you can limit your search to Statutory Instruments made by the National Assembly for Wales.
Other Materials Search: this is again similar to the Case Law Search, but in this case the check boxes relate to the type of material, which ranges from Books and Journals to Treaties and Law Commission Reports. It’s a fairly miscellaneous collection of anything that isn’t case law or legislation, basically.
Advanced Search: finally, a search that appears to include all of these types of material from one place, a bit like the home page “omnibox”, but with more options to use Boolean connectors and to limit the search to particular sources. Strictly for the nerds, perhaps.
To enable users to check out the latest content in different parts of the database, BAILII offers a range of browse options. These are accessed via the Home Page, where there is a list headed BAILII RESOURCES.
At the top of these are three lists that offer a quick entry to new content.
Recent Decisions Lists: this takes you to a second page where there is a list of courts, and for each court a list of the 20 most recent judgments given by that court and added to the database.
Clicking on the name of that court in the list at the top of the page takes you directly (it is lower down on the same page) to a list of the 20 most recent cases added to that court’s database.
Recent Additions Lists: this takes you to a similar page, listing courts and then, lower down, cases that have recently been added to that court’s database. The key difference is that these are not necessarily the most recent cases, they may be much older cases, but they are cases that have only recently been sent to BAILII.
That might be for a number of reasons. They might have been embargoed because of a pending criminal trial, or they might have been given in private and awaiting anonymisation or redaction to permit publication online; or they might have been awaiting transcription from an oral (extempore) judgment. Sometimes they form part of a collection of historic material only recently made available.
New Cases of Interest: These are cases that have been uploaded very recently (within the last few hours) and may not yet be accessible via the normal search functions. That’s because when cases are first uploaded, they need to be indexed by the system (a continuous process) before they can be found by the search engine. It’s a short list, but it is a good place to look for something that you know has only just happened.
There is then a list of BAILII Databases by jurisdiction, ie United Kingdom, England and Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland, etc. Each of these headings just takes you to a part of the next where that particular jurisdiction’s courts (and other content, like legislation) are listed. Once there, you can find whatever court you are interested in and open that court’s page.
For example, you might be interested in the England and Wales Court of Protection. You’ll find that on the main jurisdiction index page, under England and Wales, in the midst of a long list of courts. (This list of courts mirrors the long list of court checkboxes on the main Case Law Search page, described above.)
Once you are on the Court of Protection page, you can see a search box, enabling you to make a search confined to the content in this court’s database; a list of alphabet letters, enabling you to browse cases A-Z by name; and a list of dates, enabling you to browse cases by year (and, when you open the page, month).
Each court database has a similar page, enabling you to target and monitor a particular court’s output.
Additional browse pages offer an A-Z search of all cases by name, under one of a selection of jurisdictions; and similar services to browse by name for items of legislation and for other materials. These are massive long lists and it’s hard to see the point of them, other than to prove it could be done.
There are also some lists of case law by subject. Be warned! These are rather historic, having been compiled in 2006 as part of an academic project to collect leading judgments in particular fields and make them available freely via BAILII. They are of some use in identifying classic foundational cases of the sort students would be told to read, but they will be of rather less help in identifying recent leading cases and they certainly do not amount to any sort of subject matter browse. For that, you will need to go to ICLR (which you can search and browse for free) or one of the commercial legal databases.
There are a number of other pages of information on BAILII, including all the annual lectures, information about how to link to judgments and background information about BAILII itself. It’s quite fun to rummage about there. But not if you’re in a rush to find a particular case.
The number of different case search options is a bit bewildering, but for all round case searching, the main Case Law Search is the best one to use. Save the link as a bookmark: https://www.bailii.org/form/search_cases.html
Use it to search for the citation, if you have it; the case name, if you have that (one or more words may be sufficient, perhaps combined with other information, such as the name of the judge); or to search for words or phrases, either randomly or in a specific phrase or formation; and combine any one or more of these with the checkboxes below to filter by court.
But to check up on the latest content in your area of interest, the best thing is a regular browse of the latest cases feed for the courts that deal with that type of case.
Whether searching or browsing, a neat trick is to right-click each of the results in turn, so you don’t lose the main list of results. That way you have always got a list of the results to go back to, without having to constantly retrace your steps.
We have a small favour to ask!
The Transparency Project is a registered charity in England & Wales run largely by volunteers who also have full-time jobs. We’re working hard to secure extra funding so that we can keep making family justice clearer for all who use the court and work within it. We’d be really grateful if you were able to help us by making a small one-off (or regular!) donation through our Just Giving page. You can find our page, and further information here.
Thanks for reading!