Answer – When it appears in the McGill Law Journal’s Canadian Guide to Uniform Legal Citation (the “McGill Guide”)
In the McGill Guide, a case citation to decision of a court or tribunal in an online database is described as “an online case identifier”. It does not qualify to be considered as a case citation like any other. This makes no sense.
What is a case citation anyway?
Simply stated, a case citation is a reference to a reliable source of the full text of the decision of a court or tribunal. In his Foreword to the McGill Guide John I Laskin makes this point clearly and unequivocally when he states that the first function served by a case citation is to
“enable(s) readers to find, quickly and easily, a reliable version of the source cited, be it a court decision or a journal article, and where appropriate or necessary, to verify and trace the roots of the source”.
For a few hundred years, give or take a few, print law reports were that source. Of necessity, the original guides to legal case citation reflected this historic fact.
However, times have changed. In this decade, in this century, in this country, the primary, the most accessible and the most used source of the full text of the decision of the court or a tribunal is a case law database. It is the print law report citation that has become the “also ran”.
When the McGill Guide was first published, onlone services were still in their formative stages. Print law reports seemed so permanent by comparison. Law libraries across the country maintained large historical collections of law reports. To conduct a complete search of the case law required the use of print. That is not the case today.
The print law report is on life support
At one time, any court or tribunal decision of note was available in print. Library collections with comprehensive collections of law reports were the norm. Today, however, as more and more law libraries dump their collections of print law reports, this is no longer the case.
Although few publishers will admit it publicly, subscriptions to current series of print law reports are tanking. There are law report series with fewer than fifteen subscribers but the exact number of current subscribers to any particular series is known only to the publisher. Theoretically a publisher could publish as few as one volume per series and claim that the print law report is alive and well rather than lose face by terminating a series.
At this point, the print case citation is primarily used by the commercial legal publishers as a correlative citation to the online case identifier for a case actually reported in an online database, and as a marketing device to create the impression that one online service has something unique to offer a subscriber.
A Major Achievement Despite Criticism
As well as trivializing the online case citation, the McGill Guide compounds the problem by directing that in citing cases, one must follow a “hierarchy of sources” in which the least useful and least accessible citations appear first. Specifically it directs the reader to refer to the Neutral Citation, then to print reporters that are increasingly available only in databases, and only last and seemingly least to the primary sources of case law – the online services of Lexis, Carswell, Azumet and Canlii.
For this and many other very good reasons, it is now “open season” for posting critiques of the McGill Guide. Many if not all of the comments are justified and worthy of careful study. In doing so one should be mindful of the invaluable contribution made by the McGill Guide to legal research and writing in Canada. When it was first published, the legal profession was generally careless, casual or indifferent to styling legal references. Judicial decisions in particular cited text books without stating the edition used, let alone providing the correct page reference. The publication of the McGill Guide and its widespread circulation among law students over time has dramatically improved the standard of citing cases and texts as a whole. Proposed alternatives necessarily will build on this foundation. Bravo to all past and future editors of the McGill Guide and to Carswell for faithfully supporting this publication from its inception.
Postscipt: I admit to bias in critiquing the McGill Guide. As the original Carswell publisher for the Guide, I am quite proud of its role in educating the legal profession in correct forms of citation. I hope that new editions of the McGill Guide will continue to flourish alongside the many other Guides that appear to be in development in the legal research community.