Legal Research Tip 2: What are legal resources?
These are the back issues of the e-newsletter Legal Research Tips from 2004. Since these tips are a little longer, each back issue will be published separately. Starting in 2005, all issues will be published here and no longer distributed via email.
Legal Research Tip 2: What are Legal Resources?
Legal Resources come in many flavors and categories. This tip will sort out the main categories and describe what flavors fit in each category.
A primary source is one which is created by one of the three branches of government while acting in its law-making capacity. For the legislative branch, those are statutes or codes or ordinances. For the executive branch, those are administrative rules, codes, or regulations. For the judicial branch, those are decisions/opinions (caselaw) and rules. A primary sources are considered the law itself.
For certain resources, in certain states, only the print copies of the actual laws, rules, or cases are considered the official version. Although many primary sources can now be found in electronic format for use during legal research, only the official version can be submitted during court actions.
A secondary source is a resource that helps us understand, explain, or find the law. Examples of secondary sources are periodicals, encyclopedias, dictionaries, annotations, or treatises (books) about a specific type of law or court procedure.
"Finding aids" are a category of secondary sources that specifically help you locate the legal resources you need, whether they are primary or secondary sources, by indexing or cross-referencing different types of resources and subjects. Some common finding aids are digests that help find caselaw about specific topics or indices that help find a specific statute or administrative code. Some would even call a librarian the best kind of finding aid!
People often use secondary sources to find an explanation of the law, especially since reading laws is often a frustrating experience for those unfamiliar with legal jargon. Secondary sources are also a good place to begin a legal research quest for those who don't know if the law they need is a statute, regulation, or judge's opinion, or if the topic can be covered by all three.
In future tips, we will discuss certain types of primary and secondary sources, why someone would use a certain source, and whether certain sources are available online or not.