First Year Tip Series: Introduction to Case Notes

Ben Conlon, Senior Editorial Board (Online Editor)

A case note is something that every law student is asked to write at some point in their studies and, without some direction, can be a daunting task. This article aims to briefly explain what a case note is, what the benefits of writing a case note are, and how to actually write a case note. Further information is also included at the end of the piece about the Gernot Biehler Case Note competition.

What is a Case Note?

A case note is a summary and analysis of a single case, as opposed to an article, which examines an area of law. A case note should outline the facts of the case, as well as its ratio decedendi, and also provide a critical analysis of the decision. The analysis should concern the correctness of the decision, with reference to case law, accepted logic and academic opinion. A good case note usually contains analysis of the effect that the decision may have on future cases, especially if the decision is a departure from a previously settled point of law.

What to Keep in Mind when Selecting a Case

If you have the option of selecting the case you would like to write on, below are some factors you should keep in mind:

  • Try to pick an area of significant concern or a topical issue
  • Does the case seem to ignore reason/common sense?
  • Is there a recent case where the court departs from precedent or a position accepted in other jurisdictions?
  • Does the decision which may have significant extra-legal repercussions.
  • Will this decision prompt interesting results in future cases?
  • Was this the first case in a newly-legislated area?
  • Has there already been substantial academic commentary written on this case? Often it may be better, for originality’s sake to write on a new case, or one that has not been subject to as much discussion.

How to Write a Case Note

(A) Research

As with any piece of legal writing, the first step in writing a case note is conducting the necessary research. Read the case multiple times and note down the facts and the ratio decedendi. The case should be read in the context of the area of law as a whole; understanding how the case relates to existing principles and case law is key in forming a critique and analysis. Further consideration should be given to whether the law is still relevant, and whether it is still considered to be a strong precedent. While a case note tends not to rely on academic sources as much as a legal essay, it is still worth exploring academic commentary around the case, from which a greater perspective can be gleaned.

(B) Writing

There is no rigid structure for how a case note should be written, but this article will attempt to lay out a basic structure and guide for writing the case note itself. It is worth noting that many brilliant case notes do not follow this structure, and can often depart from it dramatically, so there is no pressure to follow this structure.

As is the case in most legal writing, it is generally recommended that the piece is broken down into separate headings. This can make the case note easier to follow, and direct the reader to the important elements of the piece. When writing a case note for a legal journal or a university assignment, regard should be had for the word-count when deciding on how specific the headings are; if there is a lower word-count, it might make sense to merge some of the headings together.

(i) The Introduction

The introduction of a case note should introduce the case and indicate the court in which it was decided. It should lay out the structure of the case note, explain the significance of the case (i.e. the change in the law brought about by the case), and briefly outline your opinion of the case.

(ii) The Facts of the Case

The second section of the case note should briefly outline the facts of the case. It is important to keep in mind that a case note is not simply a summary of a case; the facts simply set out the background for your analysis. Due to this, this section of the case note should not be too long, and the aim should be to illustrate the facts that were relevant in the court’s reasoning, rather than the entirety of the factual circumstances. This is generally a good place to mention the decisions of the lower courts in relation to the case at hand.

(iii) The Decision and the Ratio Decidendi

This section of the case note should deal with the reasoning that lead to the court’s decision, and specific emphasis should be placed on the key decisions and the ratio decedendi. Here, detail should be provided on the case law that the court either relied on or moved away from, and a short explanation of the reasoning behind such moves should be given. The way that the decision was handled should also be mentioned (e.g. was the judgment suspended to allow the government to amend the issue?), as this is often indicative of the attitude of the courts in relation to the issue at hand.

(iv) Critical Analysis/Further Discussion

The primary aim of a case note is to critically analyse a particular decision and the effect it has on the law. “Critically analyse” can be a confusing phrase, so considering some of the following questions may be a useful starting point:

  • Is the logic of the judgment sound? Do you agree with it? Why or why not?
  • Does the judgment differ or depart from previous decisions? Does it follow some aspects but not others?
  • How does the judgment compare with international precedent?
  • Does the judgment reflect political/economic/cultural tensions?
  • Does the judgment fail to acknowledge any legal or extralegal repercussions it may have?
  • Has the judgment failed to address any important questions?
  • Do you agree with the decision? Why?

It is worth noting that “critically analyse” does not mean you have to disagree with a judgment; the best critical analysis praises some aspects of a judgment, and attacks others. Commentary on previous related decisions may help to inform your opinion on a case, and help with the critical analysis. It is recommended that some thought is given to how the case may have a lasting impact, and it should be acknowledged whether or not the case might be open to appeal. However, as in any legal piece, it is advisable that a certain degree of critical analysis is woven throughout the piece, rather than isolated to one section.

(v) Conclusion

The conclusion should very briefly summarise the decision, the flaws and achievements that have been discussed throughout the case note, and your overall opinion. A general rule for any piece of writing is that new substantive arguments that have not been discussed in the body of the piece should not be introduced in the conclusion. Finally, some concluding remarks could be offered about the effect of the case on that area of law, and how future cases may be influenced by it.

Some Final Tips

As is the case with any piece of legal writing, there should be a cohesive thread of argument that runs through the case note, but this may be difficult to  pick up on  after several hours of writing by yourself.  As a result, the argument you have crafted might make sense to you, but not to a new reader. One of the best ways to deal with this is to ask someone else to read over the piece and offer some of their own comments.

While it is always advised to read through previous academic pieces written on your chosen area, make sure when citing academics that you are also evaluating their arguments to the reader. Do you agree with what the academic has said? How does their argument bolster yours? Or, how would you refute what the academic has argued? Analysing the academic commentary you have utilised is key to presenting critical analysis in your piece.

In the same vein, when presenting your arguments, it is recommended that you recognise ‘the other side.’ This is particularly important in controversial areas of law, like socio-economic rights, where presenting a one-sided argument will reflect poorly on the author’s critical analysis.

As a final note, the TCLR Online has published many case notes, and reading over these can help you to form a picture of what a case note looks like, and what a case note should contain. Many longer case notes have also been published in the print version of the TCLR, which can be found on the legal article database Heinonline.

The Gernot Biehler Case Note Competition

The Trinity College Law Review runs an annual case note competition in honour of Dr. Gernot Biehler. Dr. Biehler was a distinguished fellow of Trinity College and a lecturer in international law and conflicts of law, who died aged 48. Dr. Biehler was a keen supporter of the work of the Law Review.

The competition is open to first and second year undergraduate students from all universities. Case notes are subject to a word limit of 3,000 words excluding footnotes, and the deadline for submitting your entry is the 17th January 2020. The winning entry is published in the print journal of the Trinity College Law Review, and the winner receives a cash prize of €250. More information on the competition can be found at .




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