A judgement on prorogation: floundering in legal citation

Down the road in London Town this morning, a judgment was handed down by the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom. Whilst the judgment itself has attracted far more attention than many others in recent memory, we imagine that for some of our students, and both academic and professional colleagues (denizens of Durham Law School excepted), some of the many citations that peppered the pronouncement may prove particularly perturbing. But help interpreting these is available…

Understanding legal abbreviations

Staff in the Library often run “Legal Research for non-lawyers” sessions, for students and staff who need to delve into legal materials but who do not themselves have a background in legal research. One of the first barriers they encounter is interpreting the array of legal abbreviations and citations they come across. In the UK, these might be used to identify legal journal articles, case law and primary and secondary legislation.

We won’t touch on numbering systems for EU Directives and Regulations here – that is a whole different discussion, and of course this judgment issued today was principally concerned with UK Constitutional law and had nothing to do with the European Union itself

There were several previous cases referenced throughout the judgment – and this judgment itself also had its own identifying citation: [2019] UKSC 41.

Neutral Citations

This is what is called a ‘neutral citation’ – a unique identifier assigned to all judgments from the higher courts since January 2001. It is made up of three key components: Year, Court (& Jurisdiction) and Case number. So in this case, it is telling us this is the judgment of case number 41 of the Supreme Court (SC) – United Kingdom (UK) being the jurisdiction of the court – of 2019. Simple.

2019 (Year), UKSC (Jurisdiction and Court), 41 (Case number)
Example of a neutral citation for a Uk Court Judgment

This case heard the appeals of two previous cases – neutral citations as follows:

  • [2019] EWHC 2381 (QB) – This was case number 2381 heard by the England and Wales High Court (Queen’s Bench Division) of 2019.
  • [2019] CSIH 49 – This was case number 49 from the Court of Session, Inner House (Scotland) in 2019.


Law reports

But then some of the citations appearing later in the judgment throw you an extra curveball. For example;

Hopefully, you can spot this is the 51st case from 2017 heard by the United Kingdom’s Supreme Court from the first part – the neutral citation.  But what is the second part? This is a specific reference to one report of that case. You may hear lawyers referring to law reports – essentially a report on a particular case. It will often include the full judgment, but then additional materials, perhaps commenting on specific points of law the judgment addressed or identifying related legal materials. So, this citation is telling us that the judges referred to a specific report of a case and identify which relevant paragraphs in that law report they have referred to (Paras 80-82 and 88-89).

The citation tells us that this report can be found in volume 3 of the 2017 edition of the Weekly Law Reports (WLR), and that the report of this case starts on page 409 of that volume. Makes sense, yes?

2017 (Year), 3 (Volume), WLR (abbreviation for 'Weekly Law Reports'), 409 (Start page for the report)
Example of a citation to a case in the Weekly Law Reports

Series of law reports aren’t free – we have some printed volumes on our library shelves in the Bill Bryson Library, and the Weekly Law Reports are accessible online via our subscription to Westlaw UK. So, this citation identifies which law report the court used, but also identifies the neutral citation of the judgment, which is helpful for those who don’t have ready access to the law report itself.

Then we have the following:

No official neutral citation here – remember they only started to be used after 2001. However, in some cases they have been supplied unofficially by BAILII (the British and Irish Legal Information Institute). This is a citation indicating that this case can be found at page 811 in the 1989 edition of the Queen’s Bench division of The Law Reports.

Cardiff index to Legal Abbreviations

But hang on, are you supposed to know what ‘WLR’ and ‘QB’ stand for? Do you have to have an encyclopaedic knowledge of every single law report and its correct abbreviation in order to study the law? Why, of course not: you have free access to the award winning Cardiff Index to Legal Abbreviations. Phew!

Older Cases

There is one date to bear in mind… 1865. Prior to this date, reports were largely written by private reporters, and instead of an abbreviation to a series of law reports, you may find the name of that reporter instead. Many of these were reprinted in two series – The English Reports and The Revised Reports. We have access to the former through several of our legal databases: Westlaw UK, Lexis Library and HeinOnline.

For example;

  • (1765) 2 Wils KB 275 – refers to a report in Wilson’s King’s Bench reports of 1765.

Ye Olde Statutes of Lore

Whilst most of the citations included in the judgment refer to case law, there are a number of references to primary and secondary legislation (Statutes and Statutory Instruments).

The following is a Statutory Instrument (SI):

  • European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018 (Exit Day) (Amendment No 2) Regulations 2019 (SI 2019/859)

It is the 859th piece of secondary legislation issued by Parliament in 2019 and was issued under the authority of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018. Simple enough. That Act (Statute) would be cited as:

The c.16 means this was the 16th Public General Act passed in the year 2018 (the ‘c’ essentially represents a ‘chapter’ in the statue ‘book’).

But prior to 1963, UK Statutes were cited by regnal year… and this judgment cites one Statute a lot older than that:

This one’s title is a bit of a giveaway. But the citation itself marks this as the 10th Statute from the 36th year of the reign of Edward III. For some context, another Statute from the same year declared that:

“all pleas which shall be pleaded in [any] Courts … shall be pleaded, shewed, defended, answered, debated, and judged in the English Language”

… (previously, cases had been heard in French). This was also less than 20 years following the Battle of Crécy (1346), the English Crown reigned over Aquitaine, Poitou and Calais – parts of modern-day France (but did not rule over Scotland – there had been a bit of fighting over that in the preceding few decades as well). Luckily, the English get on a lot better with all of their European neighbours in recent days!

Useful Links

… and look out for our sessions on legal research for non-lawyers later in Michaelmas term!

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