Digital law reports: research you can do during the pandemic

You’ve cancelled your summer research trips. Archives like the British Library have suspended their imaging services during the pandemic, which means that you can’t order scans or copies remotely, either. So how do you keep your research going?

Here’s an idea if you can’t get any new archival material: dive into the digital law reports. My research guide is a very dense and detailed primer on working with case law. But here is a short and quick version, adapted to our current situation in July 2020.

Reported case law from South Asia is an incredibly rich body of published sources. New (old) law reports are appearing online every day. So a great thing to do right now is to dig into the law reports on a particular theme or area of law. What stories can you unearth from judicial decisions?

A. For cases decided in South Asia

There are two ways in:

  1. The quick way: find an online body of judgments and keyword search them. You could use Indian Kanoon (open access) or Manupatra (by subscription), for instance. Be aware, though, that there are limitations to this approach. First, neither of these databases of case law cover the colonial case law in a thorough way. So if the pre-1947 period is your focus, this method will be uneven. Some of the Indian Kanoon decisions are also excerpted in odd ways. And you will pull up a random collection of judgments, not necessarily the ones that were considered “leading cases” by lawyers and judges.
  2. The better way: start with a treatise on the larger body of law you are interested in. For instance, if you are focusing on a particular kind of crime, you could use Ratanlal Ranchhoddas and Dhirajlal Keshavlal Thakore’s The Indian Penal Code (1948, 19th ed.). Treatises are available online for free on Internet Archive and Google Books, and by subscription via any of the e-book databases you may have access to through a university library catalag (Hathi Trust, LLMC Digital, HeinOnline, and Gale’s The Making of Modern Law are all good). Figure out what section of the treatise and/or statute is relevant. For instance, if you are working on forgery, you’ll want IPC s.463. Look up this section in the treatise, and then focus on the case citations in the footnotes. These are the cases to look up. Occasionally, there are errors in these citations, so you probably won’t get a 100% harvest rate. Use my citation abbreviation list to decode the law reports’ titles (for example, AIR Bom = All India Reporter Bombay series). Then look for these publications online. If you have access to a university library catalog, search for each title there. Or you can search these platforms directly:
    • LLMC digital (by subscription): you can get PDFs of the original published law reports here. This is a more reliable format (from a historian’s perspective) than when the text alone is given to you, having been run through some intermediate processing. Here’s the route for India: Search Collections–>Other Countries–>India–>India, Provinces (click on appropriate region)
    • Hathi Trust (partly open access; full version by subscription): will also give you PDFs of the original published law reports.
    • Manupatra (by subscription): this is the leading case law-based database for India today. Its coverage is spotty for cases from the colonial period (pre-1947). You will get the text of the decision, but not a PDF of the original law report.
    • HeinOnline (by subscription): select Law Journal Library and then do a search within that category for the publication title you are looking for. Some law journals in India included law reports (decisions), as well as articles. You may not find pure law reports here (ex. All India Reporter), but if you have any citations with “Journal” in the name (ex. Criminal Law Journal of India), then maybe Hein will be useful.
    • Indian Kanoon (open access): this is the leading free online case law database for India. You’ll get the text of the decision, but not a PDF of the original law report. Please note that its judgments are sometimes excerpted or incomplete in odd ways, though, and that coverage of the pre-1947 period can be spotty.
    • Asian Legal Information Institute (AsianLII, open access): includes original scans (already organized by case for each year) for many All India Reporter (AIR) volumes and law reports from Burma
    • CommonLII–India (open access): includes many AIR volumes; see CommonLII for other countries in South Asia
    • WorldLII–India(open access): overlaps with the preceding two entries; see WorldLII for other countries in South Asia
    • Internet Archive and Google Books (both open access): can be great for historical materials, although law reports will come up in jumbled order (and probably only some years will be included). You will get scans of the original law reports here.

See also my Links tab (under 1.c. Databases and Primary Sources) for other online platforms that may include law reports, particularly for South Asian jurisdictions other than India.

B. For cases decided in London by the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council

Have a look at British and Irish Legal Information Institute (BAILII) Judicial Committee of the Privy Council decisions (open access). The Privy Council was the apex imperial court. Searching these decisions will give you the disputes that went all the way to the top. You’ll get scans of the printed decisions here, not just the text. And for 1920s+, you’ll also occasionally find other documents from the case files, too.

For more on law reports as a source type, see my Research Guide and Published Primary Sources. If you want to know what treatises a 1920s Bombay law library held, see Colonial Law Library (this can help you identify a treatise to consult for case law citations in the footnotes).

Happy digging!