Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Doing Case Law Research? Try Using West's Topic and Key Numbers!

You may have heard about the "one good case” method, but have you ever tried it?

A problem often encountered when searching online is that the courts may express a particular concept in a variety of ways.
One effective and efficient strategy to try is the West topic and key number system. 

West has divided all American law into more than 400 broad subject categories called “topics.”  Each topic is subdivided into “key numbers,” which allow you to focus specifically on the precise issue you are researching. The system relies on headnotes that identify and briefly state each legal issue in a case. Every headnote within a case is identified with a topic and key number.

Here's an example of a headnote, as it appears on WestlawNext, from Lewis v. Lewis, 370 Mass. 619, 351 N.E.2d 526 (1976).


What does the headnote above tell us? This headnote is the 6th issue of law addressed in  Lewis v. Lewis. “Husband and Wife” is the topic name (also identified as topic number 205) and the key number is “Rights of Action in General” (also identified as key number 205(2)). The value in using West's system is that it allows you to take an on-point topic and key number and use it to locate ALL cases digested by West in ALL jurisdictions.

For instance, let’s assume you have been an attorney in Massachusetts for a number of years and are very familiar with the holding of the Lewis case and know that it was the first Massachusetts decision to hold that spouses could sue each other for injuries sustained in a motor vehicle accident. You have now moved to Hawaii and you need to know whether or not spouses in Hawaii can sue each other for injuries sustained in a motor vehicle accident.  You can use the information you already have about Massachusetts law and the West topic and key number system to find that answer.

Look at the headnotes in Lewis and identify the one that is most relevant to your issue. Click on the link to the most specific topic and key number in headnote 6: 205k205(2).

This brings you to a screen where you can change your jurisdiction to Hawaii.


Doing this will retrieve all cases digested under this headnote in Hawaii. The first result you retrieve is Peters v. Peters, 63 Haw. 653, 634 P.2d 586 (1981).


The researcher will see that in Hawaii the Supreme Court would not modify interspousal tort immunity rule so as to permit interspousal liability in regard to claims arising out of motor vehicle accident. This is the opposite result as found in Massachusetts in the Lewis case.

Try this method the next time you find one relevant case from any jurisdiction. You just might be amazed at how effective this strategy is!

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