10 What is Case Law?

A case, often referred to as a decision or judgment, is a written record of a judge or judges reasoning or decision-making applied to a particular dispute. When deciding cases, judges interpret legislation and apply the doctrine of precedent (stare decisis), which means the court must follow the decisions reached by a higher court in the same jurisdiction. For this reason, case law has precedential value and is sometimes known as common law or judge-made law.

Case law is a primary source of law in Australia.

Anatomy of a case

Understanding the different parts of a case is helpful for case law research. The figure below shows some of the key parts of a case.

The unique identifying elements of a legal case are shown in this image of two open pages of a printed copy of a case report. Elements are highlighted with arrows used to point towards important elements such as party names, court name, judge names, hearing dates legal catchwords, the case summary and the case judgment.
Figure 2: Anatomy of a case by UQ Library in UQ Legal Research Essentials is used under CC-BY-NC 4.0
At the very top of the decision, you will find information about the case, including the:
  • party names
  • court
  • judge/s
  • hearing date/s.


The headnote of the decision contains catchwords and a summary of the case. Catchwords are keywords and phrases separated by dashes, summarising the legal principles and legislation discussed in the case. The summary provides a short description of the matter and outlines the key holdings of the case.

The headnote is not officially part of the judgment.


The start of the judgment proper is usually indicated by the Judge’s surname (e.g. Stanley J: …). Each judgment will generally include:

  • the procedural history of the case
  • statement of facts
  • relevant legal issues and legal principles
  • conclusion
  • order.

Learning how to undertake a case analysis and distinguish the ratio decidendi is a core skill in legal studies.

Do not be tempted to read and quote only from the headnote rather than the full decision. It is important to note that the headnote is written by a law reporter and not by a judge. Therefore, it is not considered to be part of the judgment.


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Legal Research Skills: An Australian Law Guide Copyright © 2023 by The University of Queensland, James Cook University, the University of Southern Queensland, Charles Darwin University, Southern Cross University, Queensland University of Technology, and Deakin University is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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