Proof Enough – the SCRs Online

As some of you know, I have another life in which I occasionally crank out more words (spill ink and post pixels, if you will) than people who are formally academic lawyers. One aspect involves writing about what “cause” means in Canadian tort law. (OK, so I’ve weird hobbies, but then it beats allowing people to shoot hard rubber objects at your body, on the understanding that, more often than not, you’ll try to make the object hit you rather than getting out of the way.) 

Anyway, the point is that I knew, anecdotally and from coincidental serendipity when looking for something else, that a phrase had been used for a particular purpose in reported cases, including in the SCRs, from as far back as the late 1800s. I might, once upon a time, have been prepared to sit down and, starting with the old SCR series, use the index and headnotes to identify cases where the phrase (or a variation) was likely used, then check the text. But, that was once upon a time.

Yesterday, for a lark, I ran a search on the SCC database on CanLII which now, for cases before 1985, has all of the reported SCC on appeal from the Ontario CA and the heavily cited cases from the other courts. cases back to the beginning. As one might expect, all of the usages showed up. I have my proof. The process took less than 10 minutes in total. It might have taken less if I’d been paying attention. It would have taken days if I had tried find the cases the old, manual, read through the reports, days. I doubt I’d have done it. (Corrected for reasons noted in comment 1: DC)

There is a downside to this process. The amount I’ve learned, over the years, accidentally, serendipitously – John Swan has mentioned the importance of serendipity to legal research – while searching for something else is enormous. Properly designed online search algorithms reduce the chances of that happening.


  1. David, CanLII’s database of SCC decisions is comprehensive only up to 1985. Before 1985, the only decisions that are available are those that are heavily cited or that were appealed from the Ontario Court of Appeal.

    On CanLII, incomplete years are displayed between square brackets on the court page.

  2. Oops, that’s right and forgot. Thanks. The announcement was here, on Slaw, too.

    It’s still a panacea for scholarship, though research assistants aren’t quite yet free from the romance of pulling old volumes down from the stacks.

  3. I believe in serendipity, too (it was even taught as a legitimate research tactic when I was in library school). It used to be that serendipity involved finding things in the card catalogue when looking for something else. I don’t think serendipity has left us; it has just gone online, too.