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What this guide will and won't do
The purpose of this guide is to help people unfamiliar with legal research identify key areas and locate materials to answer their questions. This guide does not give legal advice* -- see a lawyer for that.
Legal research can be confusing and time-consuming;. be prepared to invest a good amount of time in your research. Especially until you become familiar with legal terms and citations, you may need to go over sources several times before understanding what it means.
* Library staff can not provide substantive advice on a legal problem, interpret legal materials for you, or explain how the law applies to your particular case. That would constitute the "unauthorized practice of law" [W.V. Code §30-2-4 and Brammer v. Taylor, 338 S.E.2d 207 (W.Va. 1985), footnote 7].
Sources of "the law"
Most people think that laws passed by the legislature are "the law", but in reality the law is a complex combination of three types of law. These typically follow the structure of the jurisdiction's government. So, in the United States we have
- Statutory Law: laws passed by a legislative body, such as the United States Congress or the West Virginia Legislature
- Administrative Law: decisions, rules, and regulations made by administrative agencies which specify how they will carry out legislation. Good examples are the United States Environmental Protection Agency and the West Virginia Department of Education
- Case Law: court decisions, usually opinions written by appellate courts, which are binding law on the lower courts in the jurisdiction.
The first thing you have to figure out is what kind of information you are looking for:
- the text of a specific court decision
- court decisions on a particular topic
- the text of a specific law or regulation
- laws or regulations on a particular subject
- general information on a legal topic
- legal forms
- legal advice
Useful guides to starting your research are:
Free online legal information
Search published opinions of U.S state appellate and supreme court cases since 1950; U.S. federal district, appellate, tax and bankruptcy court cases since 1923; and U.S. Supreme Court cases since 1791. Includes journal and conference papers, scholarly articles, and university digital repositories
Legal Information Institute (LII) - Cornell University
Provides no-cost access to many U.S. primary federal legal sources, including the U.S. Code, U.S. Supreme Court opinions, and the Code of Federal Regulations LII's collection of state legal materials includes Internet-accessible sources of constitutions, statues, judicial opinions, and regulations.
Public Library of Law (PLOL)
Includes cases from the U.S. Supreme Court and Courts of Appeals, state cases from all 50 states back to 1997, Federal statutory law and codes from all 50 states, and regulations, court rules, constitutions, and more.
Created by Timothy A. Balch. Available under a Creative Commons license: Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)