Six tips to improve legal online searching

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When conducting legal research it can be difficult to pinpoint the information required despite access to numerous resources.  Do you often find that searching for information is like looking for “a needle in a haystack?”  Here are 6 tips to improve your search.

1.  Choose the most appropriate starting point.

Are you using the right resource?  It’s easy to get into the habit of going to the same resource because it’s familiar and usually does the trick.  Take time to think if there is something more appropriate.

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Think about what kind of resource might answer your question. Would there perhaps be a statute or regulation on this matter? Might it be discussed in a journal article or a practice manual? Do you require background information, a case or a piece of legislation, or a precedent?

For example, PLC is good for precedents but does not contain full text of primary material.  Westlaw may contain a lot of cases but it can be difficult to narrow down if you are vague about what you are looking for.

2.  Let someone else do the hard work.

The goal of legal research is usually to find relevant primary law.  Finding out what someone else says is a good idea if you are unfamiliar with the area of law or have no idea where to start.  Use secondary sources such as books, commentaries or practice notes to find out what is relevant to a particular legal topic.  You will often find that they will tell you what cases or legislation are relevant saving you from having to work it out from the beginning.  For example, you may want to know what grounds there are for opposing probate.  You could search directly for the appropriate primary material using case or legislation databases but, a commentary such as Halsbury’s Laws will summarise and then list the legislation and cases relevant.

3.  Narrow your search using sub-databases and fields.

Many databases have a “search all” section, often on their starting page.  It’s tempting to type your search terms straight into that box and hope for the best!  However, unless the database is particularly small or you have used a sophisticated search strategy it’s very likely that you will find you have too many results and many of them irrelevant.

These databases will be organised into sub-databases.  This could be by material type or by legal topic. For example, Westlaw has separate sections for cases, legislation, journal articles, EU material, Current Awareness and News.  By selecting the relevant section you immediately narrow down your search considerably.  This way your results list doesn’t end up, say, being cluttered with journal articles if you only want cases.

Some databases give you different fields to type your search query into. These are boxes relating to different aspects of the document such as Title, Author, Keyword etc.  There will often be a box called “Free text” which you can use if you don’t want to specify which field the word should be in.  Selecting the appropriate field to use will narrow down your search.

4.  Use Boolean search language

Boolean search language is the fancy name for search connectors.  For example, if you were looking for a document which must contain the words “Inheritance” and “Tax” you would usually use the word “AND” to connect them.  If you were looking for documents containing either of those words but not necessarily both together you would use the word OR and if you were looking for documents containing the word “inheritance” but not “tax” you would use the word NOT.  Each online database has its own language and will have more instructions than the basics I have just mentioned, including phrase searching, proximity searching, wildcards and plurals.  Therefore, it’s a good idea to make sure you are acquainted with the right language for the right database and use it to the full.

5.  Make sure you are using appropriate search terms.

Most databases are sophisticated enough to recognise acronyms and synonyms, but not all.  Therefore, it is worth bearing in mind that you may have to specify alternative words to search rather than rely just on the phrase you are used to using.  For example, you may always refer to “Inheritance Tax” as IHT.  However, you may have to tell it to look for both in order to get the best results.  Alternative expressions for the same legal concepts may also have to be added to the search.  For example, a settlement may refer to a trust or a beneficiary may also be referred to as a donee or legatee. Over time favoured terminology can change. Recently, Probate law has started being referred to as Private Client law.

Consider broader terms if you are finding too few results or narrower terms if you are finding too many.  For example, you may be looking for “Agricultural Property Relief”, but your search for this is finding no results. By widening the search to “Inheritance Tax” or even “Tax” you might find something. It can work the other way too.  Searching for “Tax” may bring up too many results but actually specifying “Agricultural Property Relief” may make the search much more relevant.

6.  Narrow your search to a specific time period.

As you know, the law is changing all the time. Therefore, old sources of information are often irrelevant because they do not tell you how the situation is as it stands now.  Rules brought in March 2006 fundamentally changed the Inheritance Tax treatment of trusts, therefore, if you are advising on this matter you would want to make sure your information resource had been written after this date.  Most databases give you the option to choose a time scale for your search.  You can choose either a date range or select options such as “In the last week” or “in the last year”.

Of course, sometimes it is necessary to know how the law stood at a particular date in time.  You may want to know what the value of the Nil Rate Band for IHT in 1995. Therefore, consulting material that had been written after 2006 would give you the wrong values.

And finally …

When all else fails and even these tips don’t help. Don’t give up.  Check for spelling mistakes and omissions because not all databases are intuitive like Google.  You’d be surprised how difficult it is to find your case if you’ve misspelt the name!  Also, if looking for a case, using just one of the names might help or changing the order.  For example, typing Smith v Jones rather than Jones v Smith may change your list of results. Keep trying again from different angles such as using the browse option rather than the search option.  And if that still fails, consult your nearest legal librarian.

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