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The Anatomy of a Headnote

After a judicial decision is completed by a judge and filed with a court, a legal editor may add a headnote to the decision. A headnote is normally prepared by an editor employed by a publisher. 

The main purpose of a caselaw headnote is to save a searcher time in finding a point of law. A headnote should be an index to a judicial decision. For example, a headnote can serve a searcher so that only a portion of long decision has to be read.

Comment and opinion should not be part of a headnote.

What are the elements of a caselaw headnote?

The elements of a headnote should be:

  • brevity
  • clear writing
  • identification of issues
  • identification of useful points
  • listing of authorities (statutes, cases, and authors)
  • identification of counsel

Brevity – “Directness, thrift of words, brevity – everyone speaks well of them” (Robert Gunning, The Technique of Clear Writing, 1968).

Clear Writing – There are objective standards for clear writing. See the rules in Plain English for Lawyers by Richard Wydick, 5th ed. 2005. Writing to be clear and brief requires thought and re-writing. Some of the rules are, avoid long sentences, avoid unusual or difficult words, select word order with care, put modifiers close to what is modified, delete surplus words, use active base verbs, and use concrete words such as “the farmer” or a surname rather “the plaintiff” or “the appellant”.

Identification of issues – some judges are very good at identifying and stating the issues arising in a decision. Some judges are not. Some cases require careful thinking by an editor before an editor describes the issues. Each issue or point of law should be identified separately and the headnote should refer to the relevant paragraph numbers in the decision where the issue or point can be found. Sometimes experience plus a knowledge of an area of the law is a condition precedent to the ability to properly identify an issue. A legal education along with some legal experience is a prerequisite for work as a headnote editor.

Identification of useful points – In any decision there can be secondary points of law that are useful to lawyers. Useful points from four legal areas can arise in any decision, namely, practice, evidence, ethics and statutory interpretation. For example, practice points should be stated in a headnote along with the relevant paragraph numbers.

Listing of authorities (statutes, case and authors) – All statutes, cases and authors referred to in a decision should be listed in a headnote along with the proper citation for each and a reference to the relevant paragraph numbers.

Identification of counsel – On occasion a searcher may want to talk with the counsel listed in a headnote.

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