Skip to Main Content

Law Guide: Understanding Case citations

Find targeted resources for legal research

Understanding the Case Hierarchy

Understanding case citations

A case citation is a standard way of uniquely describing a case. It is important to adhere to the rules of citation so that the cases to which you refer can be easily identified and located by others. A citation for a reported judgment should contain:

  • names of the parties (with a v in between)
  • identifying date or volume number of report series, or both
  • abbreviation for the law report series title
  • page number at which the case begins

For example:

Mabo and others v The State of Queensland (No2) (1992) 175 CLR 1

  • Mabo and others is the PLAINTIFF
  • v stands for the Latin word versus which means against (spoken as 'and' in civil cases and 'against' in criminal cases)
  • State of Queensland is the DEFENDANT
  • No 2 indicates there was an earlier judgment of the same name
  • (1992) is the DATE of the law report
  • 175 is the VOLUME NUMBER of the law report
  • 1 is the PAGE NUMBER on which the case begins

The parties are usually referred to as the plaintiff (the person or entity initiating the action) and the defendant (the person or entity defending themselves/itself against the claims of the plaintiff). In an appeal case the parties are referred to as appellant and respondent. If the hearing is before a tribunal the parties are called the applicant and the respondent.

Some citation methods might use 'at' and another number (e.g: 9) following the page number. This is known as a pinpoint reference. Following the Australian Guide to Legal Citation (AGLC), only a comma and page number is used (e.g: Mabo v Queensland (1992) 175 CLR 1, 9)

Why do some citations use square brackets and others round brackets?

Square brackets are used where the year is necessary for identification of the volume of a law report. The Victorian Reports, for example, start at volume one each year so you need to know the year and then the volume number within the year in order to locate a case. e.g: Abbott v Transport Accident Commission [1991] 2 VR 116.

Round brackets are used when the reference to the year is not necessary to identify the volume or report. The Australian Law Reports are numbered consecutively, so you only need to know the volume number. e.g: Mills v Meeking (1990) 91 ALR 16.

Unreported judgments and medium neutral citations

Many courts have introduced medium neutral citations. This is so that unreported judgments made available online can be cited in the same way as paper copies. This avoids confusion if page numbering differs over publication formats. The components of a medium neutral citation are :

  • names of the parties
  • the year of the judgment
  • abbreviation for the court name
  • number (assigned consecutively by order of issue)
  • status (unreported)
  • judges
  • date of judgment

For example:

Australian Broadcasting Corporation v Lenah Game Meats Pty Ltd [2001] HCA 63 (Unreported, Gleeson CJ, Gaudron, Gummow, Kirby, Hayne and Callinan JJ, 15 November 2001).

Note that the number following the court abbreviation is not a page number - it indicates that this is the 63rd High Court judgment for 2001

Examples of Court Abbreviations include:

  • HCA High Court of Australia
  • FCA Federal Court of Australia
  • QSC Supreme Court of Queensland
  • QSCA Supreme Court of Queensland Court of Appeal

To refer to a particular section of an unreported judgment, use the paragraph number. These numbers are listed at the side of unreported judgments and ensure that the case is cited consistently no matter where the judgment has been sourced. Paragraph numbers are cited in square brackets.

Citations to unreported judgments which are not available electronically, or where the court has not adopted medium neutral citation, include the following elements:

  • names of the parties (with a v in between)
  • status of the judgment (unreported)
  • court in which the case was heard
  • Judge/s who heard the case
  • judgment number
  • date of judgment

For example: Zaika v Zaika (Unreported, Supreme Court of New South Wales, Holland, J, No132/76, 5 February 1979).

Authorised reports

There are two types of law reports : authorised and unauthorised.

Authorised reports are edited and checked by the judge before publication. Australian authorised reports include:

  • Commonwealth Law Reports (CLR)
  • Federal Court Reports (FCR)
  • New South Wales Law Reports (NSWLR)
  • New South Wales Reports (NSWR)
  • New South Wales State Reports (SR (NSW))
  • Queensland Reports (Qd R)
  • Queensland State Reports (QSR)
  • Northern Territory Law Reports (NTLR)
  • Northern Territory Reports (NTR)
  • Australian Capital Territory Law Reports (ACTLR)
  • Australian Capital Territory Reports (ACTR)
  • South Australian State Reports (SASR)
  • South Australian Law Reports (SALR)
  • Tasmanian Reports (Tas R)
  • Tasmanian Law Reports (Tas LR)
  • Tasmanian State Reports (Tas SR)
  • Victorian Reports (VR)
  • Victorian Law Reports (VLR)
  • Western Australian Reports (WAR)
  • Western Australian Law Reports (WALR)

Always use the authorised report of a case if available.

Unauthorised series of law reports tend to be published more quickly as they are the first version of the judgment released by the court. They also tend to be subject based e.g. Australian Corporations and Securities Reports (ACSR), the Australian Trade Practices Reports (ATPR) and the Administrative Law Decisions (ALD).


Reported and unreported judgments

There are two main types of case law :

  • Reported cases - judgments published in law reports. Only those cases which deal with significant points of law are considered to be valuable precedents and are included in law reports.
  • Unreported cases - judgments either too recent to be reported, or considered not sufficiently important to report.

Reported Judgments

Reported judgments are published in law reports. Some law report series publish judgments from a particular court (eg the Commonwealth Law Reports contain only judgments of the High Court of Australia). Others collect judgments in specific areas of law (eg the Australian Corporations and Securities Reports on corporations law). Cases may be reported in more than one law report series. Where this occurs the alternative citations are called parallel citations.

Unreported Judgments

Unreported judgments may be too recent to have been published in a law report or not important enough to be published. Many Australian unreported judgments are readily available via free Internet sites. Reported cases are more authoritative than unreported cases. If a case is available in a reported and unreported format, use the reported version.

For example the 2001 Commonwealth v Yarmirr case has been available on the Internet as an unreported decision since it was handed down by the High Court. The unreported citation is The Commonwealth v Yarmirr; Yarmirr v Northern Territory [2001] HCA 56 (Unreported, Gleeson CJ, Gaudron, McHugh, Gummow, Kirby, Hayne and Callinan JJ, 11 October 2001). This case has also since been reported in the Commonwealth Law Reports (CLRs). The CLR (or reported) citation is the Commonwealth of Australia v Yarmirr (2001) 208 CLR 1. This is the correct citation to use when referring to this case.

We acknowledge the Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the first inhabitants of the nation and acknowledge Traditional Owners of the lands where our staff and students, live, learn and work.Acknowledgement of Country

Creative Commons Licence
Except where otherwise noted, this work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike (CC BY-SA) 4.0 International License. Content from this Guide should be attributed to James Cook University Library. This does not apply to images, third party material (seek permission from the original owner) or any logos or insignia belonging to JCU or other bodies, which remain All Rights Reserved.