What are law reports? 

Law reports are published reports of legally significant decisions of superior courts - for example, the Commonwealth law reports. Most decisions of courts are not published. Only those that are considered by the editors of law reports to establish new legal principles, or are from superior courts such as the High Court of Australia, and are therefore binding on lower courts, are published.

What can you find in the Library? 

The National Library holds law reports published in Australia from 1825. Historical sets of law reports are also held for many overseas countries. Overseas law reports are mainly collected from the Asia/Pacific region. International law is represented through the reports of international tribunals such as the International Court of Justice.

How to identify and locate law reports  

Most individual law reports are not listed in the Library's catalogue. Reference to judgments and decisions that have been published in law reports is given in the form of a case citation. 

They are usually referred to by year (in brackets), volume number, title abbreviation and first page. For example, the Mabo decision of the High Court published in the Australian law reports is cited as (1992) 107 A.L.R. 1.

In order to locate a judgment it is necessary to obtain the title of the law report in which it is published by first finding the case citation. You can use the resources listed below to:  

  • find citations to reports about a specific case
  • search for cases that relate to a particular topic or piece of legislation
  • locate the series of reports that your judgement was published in

Law reports are published in print and electronically. Electronic access to law reports is available through both subscription databases and on the internet. You can search for a printed law report series in our catalogue by searching for the name of the report series. 

What if there is no law report? 

Not all cases are officially reported on. If the case was heard by a jury, or related to a relatively minor crime, or was heard in a lower court, there is not likely to be information available in official law report publications. 

Most court judgments (i.e. the judges' reasons for their decisions) are not published in law reports and remain unpublished. Only those of legal significance are published in law reports series. 

Sometimes you might have to consider other sources of information, such as newspaper reports, and court records.  

To locate newspaper reports of trials and cases, you can search Trove for historic Australian newspapers up to approximately 1954. You can also go to our eResources portal, select "browse eResources" and filter to Newspapers & Media under "category" to find a list of online full-text newspaper databases. 

To find printed unreported judgments held by the National Library, search the catalogue under the name of the court, tribunal or commission as an Organisation, or browse subject headings such as: 

  • Judgments -- [Jurisdiction] 
  • Law reports, digests, etc. -- [Jurisdiction] 

Some unreported judgments are published electronically, in both subscription databases and freely on the internet. If the case was heard recently in a higher court, then the judge's decision may be published online. 

Unpublished judgments may also be obtained from the registry of the court where the judgment was delivered.

Collection of printed bound law reports
Bound volumes of law reports. Image: National Library of Australia

Understanding citations

Law reports are cited differently from other publications. They are usually referred to by year (in brackets), volume number, title abbreviation and first page e.g. the Mabo decision of the High Court published in the Australian law reports is cited as (1992) 107 A.L.R. 1. 

To help decipher a citation visit Monash University’s guide to abbreviations of legal publications

Some online databases allow you to click on a citation for further information. 

Historic newspapers

Historic newspapers can be useful for finding reports of court trials and cases. Try searching Trove.