The “Great Encyclopedias” of Legal Research

This is the first of a series of posts that were prepared as the sequel to a request by Professor Daniel Poulin to explain the character and purpose of “Halsburys” and the “C.E.D.” to his seminar on legal information at the University of Montreal. The first post is a generic description of the Halsburys Model and will be followed by posts on Halsburys Laws of Canada, the Canadian Encyclopedic Digests, and the Juris Classeur Quebec, three publications of the same ilk or genre that are designed to provide legal researchers with “a complete statement” of the laws of Canada, the Western Provinces, Ontario and Quebec.


Common-law countries share a tradition of publishing the “great encyclopedias (of legal research) which became, and remain today, authoritative and indispensable works of reference wherever English law is practiced”. These include encyclopedias of (1) forms and precedents, and encyclopedias modelled on (2) Halsburys Laws of England and the (3) English and Empire Digest. More recently, the traditional list of encyclopedias has been expanded to include (4) case citations, (5) statute citations and (6) words and phrases.

The first use of the term “great encyclopedias” to describe these publications is found in “Butterworths: History of a Publishing House”, a book that Butterworths originally published in 1980 to celebrate its many innovations and accomplishments. Although a bit pretentious, the use of the word “great” is justified for a number of reasons, not merely because of their monumental scale and quality, but because the encyclopedias have become the pillars of legal research and legal practice wherever they exist. By creating and publishing the first editions of these encyclopedias more than a century ago, Butterworths effectively laid the foundation for legal research as we know it today.

Not by chance, these same encyclopedias are the foundation of the commercial business of the “major” legal publishers. In every case, these “must have” publications provide the cash flow, the reputation, the author base and the market connections that that make it possible for a legal publisher to develop and maintain a large scale publishing program of legal treatises and monographs.


As noted above, Halsburys Laws of England is one of several “models” for legal encyclopedias. The vision for a Halsburys encyclopedia is to provide an authoritative summary of the law by synthesizing and blending authoritative statements from multiple sources of the law into a single prose narrative. Halsburys attempts to cover every legal subject. Hence its value. No legal practitioner can even hope to have familiarity with all aspects of the law but the client has an expectation that his or her lawyer will be able to give legal advice every type of legal problem. Having ready access to Halsburys enables a lawyer to have an overview, and some of the vocabulary, of almost any subject prior to meeting with a client, as well as the means of initiating a more serious study of the issues after the client has left.


A Halsburys encyclopedia has a number of standard features that can be found in every encyclopedia that takes Halsburys Laws of England as its source of inspiration.

Black letter statement of the law – A Halsburys encyclopedia is a black letter statement of the law. By this is meant a prose narrative derived from statutes and cases that expressly excludes any author commentary on the nature or quality of the law as stated in a statute or case, or any speculation as to the direction in which the law should evolve. The approach taken is that “this is the law as it is now, beginning and end of story”.

Authoritative – A Halsburys encyclopedia has high standards, with authors of major treatises and monographs selected to contribute Titles on the principal legal subjects, and with up-and-coming young lawyers and professional legal researchers and writers contributing Titles on the remaining subjects. Prior to publication, these Titles are thoroughly vetted and edited by the publishers professional editorial staff to ensure accuracy.

Comprehensive – A Halsburys encyclopedia covers the complete range of legal subjects, including subjects so narrow that they would not ordinarily be the subject of a legal treatise or monograph.

Organization – A Halsburys encyclopedia is laid out in alphabetical order by “Title”, the name given to each legal subject. A “Volume” may include one or more “Titles”.

Access – A Halsburys encyclopedia is designed to give easy access to its content. For something this large in scale, carefully constructed access points are essential. Headings and sub-headings are frequent. Paragraphs are numbered. Paragraph notes rather than footnotes are employed and placed throughout the text immediately following the paragraph setting out a point of law. Key word indexes exist both to volumes and to the collection of volumes.

Currency – Titles are kept current by annual supplementation that highlights key changes to principles of law. A Halsburys Title is not intended to be a digest of all reported case law, but rather a narrative statement of legal principles with citations that support the principles. Clutter is kept to a minimum. The text changes only when legal principles change.

Format – A Halsburys encyclopedia is generally published in hard bound volumes, but there have been exceptions such as Halsburys Laws of Australia and both Canadian Encyclopedic Digests which are published in loose-leaf. The traditional bound volume format is generally preferred because of concerns about the reliability and cost of looseleaf publications. The Halsburys Model is also ideal for inclusion in an online service, providing a needed framework and context for efficiently accessing the full text of cases and statutes.

Branding – In the case of Butterworths companies, the name “Halsburys” forms part of the title. Halsburys is a brand, plain and simple, that is used to produce instant recognition as to the nature of the publication as well as provide an assurance of quality and reliability. It is used in the U.K., Canada, Australia, New Zealand, India, Singapore, Malaysia and Hong Kong. Non-Butterworths companies applying the same product concept have had to look elsewhere for inspiration for the names for their Halburys clones – hence the “Canadian Encyclopedic Digest“, the “Laws of Australia“, and the “Corpus Juris Secundum“.

Status – For decades, owning a Halsburys or a C.E.D. was seen as proof that a lawyer had made it. It was thought that to be able to afford it, the lawyer had to have established a successful law practice. A Halsburys encyclopedia is physically designed to impress both the client and the lawyer. The paper quality and binding match the quality of the content. Ribbons are used to mark your place in the text. Viewing a complete set on a library shelf is an awesome experience. In many offices, Halsburys encyclopedias are displayed in locations of high visibility for the express purpose of impressing clients.


In Canada, there are three publications that follow the Halsburys model – (1) the Canadian Encyclopedia Digest (Western Edition), and (2) the Canadian Encyclopedic Digest (Ontario Edition), both published by Carswell, and (3) Halsburys Laws of Canada published by LexisNexis Butterworths. Legal practitioners in France and Quebec have access to similar encyclopedias – Juris Classeur and Juris Classeur Quebec – that serve the same purpose for the legal practitioner. Needless to say, these encyclopedias are “distinct” or “similar but different”. This series of posts will examine each publication in turn in order to provide the user with a clear understanding of the comparative strengths of each of them, something that has been missing from the legal research literature to date.

Next post in series: Halsburys Laws of Canada – One of the Great Encyclopedias of Canadian Legal Research.

N.B. Gary P. Rodrigues was Vice President Publishing at Lexis Nexis Butterworths during the period that Halsburys Laws of Canada and Juris Classeur Quebec were developed and launched. He was Managing Editor and then Executive Editor at Carswell during the period that the Third Editions of the Canadian Encyclopedic Digest (Ontario and Western Editions) were published.


  1. Glad to see this article,Gary; the move to online searching in digital databases has, I think, obscured form with function: legal encyclopaedias are essentially the same whether print or digital.

    They have been around a lot longer than Halsbury’s in one form or other in the common law world, being descendants of the earlier digests and abridgments (the two names being somewhat synonymous), and to my mind linked to Blackstone’s Commentaries which is generally taken to be the first systemic treatment of English law.

    The first edition of Halsbury’s Laws of England appeared in 1907, and to mark the centenary LexisNexis published a collection of Centenary Essays in one volume, including a reprint of the 1st edition by Lord Halsbury himself. Its an interesting essay to read, as he goes into the history of the work – originally suggested by a commission of 1866, with the idea of trying to codify the common law, but nothing came of this until it was later taken up by Butterworth’s as you mention. Here is a quotationsfrom this essay, which give contex to the publication of Halsbury’s:

    [This is] not a mere encyclopedia, it is not merely a collection of cases, but a number of treatises composed by learned lawyers, supported by the decision of the great judges who have from time to time adorned the English Bench; it is hoped that when finished the work will furnish a complete statement of the laws of England

    The situation before Halsbury’s is summed up by an article in the Law Journal for 15 November 1957:

    “. . . at that time their libraries comprised law reports and individual text books, but no legal encyclopedias . . . The solicitor faced with a legal problem of any magnitude at all was by circumstances compelled to send the papers to counsel who, in turn, had no alternative but to study the multitude of available text books and browse among the reports and statutes

    The article goes on describe the effect of the publication of Halsbury’s to the state of legal research:

    A question which had hitherto involved hours of patient research on the part of counsel could now be answered in very much shorter time at the solicitor’s desk. Even in the case of involved points incapable of answer it became possible to start the necessary research with a list of authorities and pointers.

    I haven’t provided all the citations to these sources, but will if asked; I just wanted to get this down to support where you are going with these series of articles.

  2. In American law, the equivalent publications are–

    1. “Corpus Juris Secondum” (CJS), published by Thomson Reuters (West).

    2. “American Jurisprudence 2d” (AmJur), also published by Thomson Reuters (West). Formerly published by Lawyer’s Cooperative.

    I would love to know whether the CJS was inspired by Halsbury’s. Does anyone at West know?

    AmJur was probably inspired by CJS, since it was primarily developed as a lower cost alternative and competitor to CJS–as all Lawyer’s Cooperative publications were.

    Thanks for the interesting and enlightening post!

  3. John, I’m not an authority on the history and development of US Law by any means, so I’ll give my general thoughts but defer to those more learned than I in this area: I don’t think that CJS or Am. Jur were necessarily inspired by Halsbury’s, as the earliest US legal encyclopaedia is taken to be Thornton”s University Encyclopedia of Law (1883), which of course predates Halsbury’s.

    Two US encyclopaedias may have been influenced by Kent’s Commentaries (4 volumes 1826-1830), which was definitely inspired by Blackstone’s Commentaries, which became the authoritative version of english common law as adopted and modified in the United States.

    The first great Canadian Encyclopaedia, the Canadian Abridgment, was also published to develop a distinctly Canadian jurisprudence, and to provide a national source for legal researchers who tended to go to English law if they couldn’t find local, provincial precedents.

    I think all the encycloaedias have a common ancestor, and they became necessary due the inherent nature of the study and practice of law, and the historical patterns of publication. I’m keen on hearing more of what Gary has to say, as I think the focus on digital information and online search engines has shunted aside the real question of the taxonomy and subject control of legal information, which is the foundation upon which all the modern forms of printed legal research tools developed.

  4. Gary P. Rodrigues

    Neil has provided excellent background information on the development of legal encyclopedias prior to the publication of Halsburys Laws of England. I agree with Neil that Halsburys evolved from older encyclopedias to meet the real needs of the practitioners of law. Blackstone’s Commentaries read as if they were intended to be Titles in a Halsburys encyclopedia..

    The intent of my posts is simply to give users of digital information an understanding of the nature of the content being searched when using a Halsburys encyclopedia online. It mattered in print and, in my view, should matter online.

  5. I hope Balfour Halevy will correct me but I thought the CJS was preceded by the CJ which in turn stemmed from the Cyclopedia of Law & Procedure published by the American Law Book Company in 1902 and which is available on the web.

    The work was published by Butterworths in England. Its editor was William Mack, and is dedicated to Charles Walter Dumont:

    more than to any other man is due the existence of the Cyclopedia of Law and Procedure. His was the idea ; his was the plan ; and his has been the business ability and energetic management, as organizer and president of The American Law Book Company, which have made possible the successful publication of these volumes.

    Like its immediate successor CJ, it contains footnotes to Canadian common law and English cases, showing that 110 years ago, there really was a North American common law culture.

    The CJS is entirely American.