Writing a Case Summary

In writing the summary of a judicial decision, it is important to keep in mind the purposes for which you are writing it.  The summary is a way of forcing yourself to ask key questions that assist you in understanding the decision.  In addition, the summary then provides a quick and easy means of recalling what you have read.  Finally, the summary put you in a position to start asking critical questions about a judicial decision. Hence the summary is being written both to help you learn about the contents of the decision,  to help you in recalling those contents at some point in the future, and to prepare the way for critical reflection.

The following is a suggested format for case summaries which you should attempt to master.  It sets out a number of elements that should be contained in a case summary.  Read through this before reading the case and starting to write the summary, because knowing the format of the summary may influence how you read the case. The key is to systematically arrange related parts of the decision that are often scattered throughout the written judgement.  The point is to make it possible to manage and understand what might otherwise appear to be a long and difficult to assimilate amount of information.

Citation

First of all, it is good practice to provide a citation at the top of the summary.   For instance, a citation to a case which is accessible on the Internet might take the form: Doe v. Roe (15 December, 1998), Toronto, Ontario Court of Appeal: online http://www.ontariocourts.on.ca; last accessed 23 Sept. 1999.  A similar citation to a decision published in a formally published report series might take the form: Doe v. Roe (1998) 55 O.R. (4th) 458 (C.A.)  A citation provides key information about the case and where it can be located, in the event that you or another person wish to read the case again.  Furthermore, if you wish to make reference to the decision in an essay or other written work, it is necessary to properly document the case in a citation.

A citation normally provides the names of the leading parties involved in the case.   For example, if John Doe is suing Rhonda Roe, the citation usually begins Doe v. Roe.  The last name of the plaintiff or applicant normally comes first, followed by "v." which means "versus" and then comes the last name of the defendant or respondent in the case.  Following the names of the parties, the citation usually provides additional information about the date of the decision, the place or court where the decision was made, and where the decision can be found, whether it be in a court or commercially published law journal, or on the Internet.  If the decision is available on the Internet, and there is also a citation to a print version of the case available, it is good practice to give information about both sources.  For cases available on the Internet, provide the URL where the case is available, and the date on which you last accessed the case.

Nature of the Case

The substantive part of the summary should start with a very brief statement of the nature of the case.  This basically answers the question of why there is a legal action before the court, the nature of that action, and what remedy is being sought.  The action might be a suit claiming breach of contract for which damages are being sought.  Another example might be a suit brought by a prisoner claiming that he was unfairly denied parole.  The particular decision might be an appeal of a lower court decision, or it might be an application for judicial review of an administrative tribunal's decision.  The key is to discover who is asking this particular court for what.
Try to put this statement of the nature of the case in words that you, the student, understand.  Merely repeating the language of the court without understanding what the court is saying is of little assistance in terms of advancing understanding.

The Facts

The next part of the summary should provide a succinct statement of the facts of the case.  Only those facts that are relevant to the main legal issues should be noted.  Sometimes the court itself provides a useful summary of the facts at the beginning of the decision, but sometimes it is necessary to cull the facts from the decision as a whole.  Even where the court provides a summary, the summary that you write for yourself will likely be a condensation of the facts as reported by the judge. The summary of facts should not be any longer than three or four sentences, forcing you to hone in on the key elements of the case.  It is usually impossible to tell what the most relevant facts are until you have read the whole case, as the final decision may turn on a particular fact or set of facts that is only revealed or discussed near the end of the decision.

Issue

The summary should contain a clear statement of the legal issue addressed in the decision.  To the extent that a court decision purports to resolve a dispute between the parties on the basis of a legal rule, the legal issue in the case involves an identification of the appropriate legal rule to apply to the resolution of the dispute.  It is often appropriate to state the legal issue in the form of a question, such as "where is a contract formed when the acceptance is communicated by fax?"  Another example might be: "Does the guarantee of freedom of expression in the Charter of Rights preserve a union's right to engage in picketing?"  One problem that arises in identifying the issue is that the court often purports to raise and answer several questions.  In many cases there is one central issue on which the resolution of the dispute revolves, and in that situation it is desirable to only state that one issue.  However, if it is clear that the court is basing its decision on several issues, then by all means feel free to include them in the summary.  The statement of each issue, however, should normally be no longer than a sentence.  The key to identifying the issues in a case is to reflect upon who wants what, did they succeed or fail in getting it, and thinking of the issue in the case as explaining why  they may have succeeded or failed.

Concise Rule of Law

Provide a statement of the general principle of law that the case illustrates. For example, "A contract is formed in the place where an acceptance by fax is received." or "Picketing in the form of leafleting aimed at consumers is a form of freedom of expression protected by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms."  The identification of the rule of law is similar to the identification of the issue, but is most often best stated in a declarative fashion, and with somewhat more precision than the statement of the issue.

Holding and Decision

Explain the court's rationale in reaching its conclusion.  Explain how the court applied the general rule of law to the facts of the case, and the public policy issues or other factors that may influence the judge's reasoning.  Finish with a statement indicating how the case was finally decided.  For example, "the plaintiff's claim for damages was disallowed" or "the appeal was allowed".  (This, of course, assumes that in the description of the nature of the case, you have clearly stated the nature of the plaintiff's claim, or the basis of the appeal).

Some Final Pointers

Be as economical as possible in providing the summary of a case.  The suggested format encourages succinctness.  The regular use of such a summary format also helps you to be economical with regard to the time spent on reading of the case.  Force yourself to read with an eye trained to recognize into which section of your summary a particular passage or line fits.  It helps to jot notes as you read, with the structure of your summary in mind.

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