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HCS221 & HCS532 Research Skills Guide: Legal research process

Legal Research process

In general, when starting your legal research, it's good to start in the secondary resource and then proceed to the primary resources.

Throughout your law degree at Charles Sturt University, you'll use the IRAC method when structuring your answers to legal problems. The Legal Research Method chart below shows you where the Library resources (primary & secondary) fit into the IRAC method. Using secondary resources in the "Gather background information" stage will help you when writing your assessment tasks, you'll be better equipped to explain the relevant law with supporting materials.

Plan your search strategy

Before you start your legal research, it is useful to plan a search strategy. You should 

  • Identify your search terms - consider the keywords and phrases that best describe the legal issues in your scenario.
  • Identify some alternative search words (synonyms) - legal dictionaries and encyclopedias can help you do this.
  • Consider any search parameters - do you need to limit your search to a particular jurisdiction or point in time?
  • Decide what type of secondary source you are looking for - e.g. journal articles, commentary, law reform material.

If you are completing a legal scenario, you need to research the legal issues, not the facts of the case. Make sure you select keywords and phrases that are relevant to the legal issues.

The law is often concerned with rights and liabilities of the parties, so a good approach is to frame the issues in the terms of possible rights and liabilities.


Write down the key concepts from your topic and have a go at brainstorming as many alternative keywords and phrases as possible.

Thinking about your topic in this way forces you to describe your topic in "other words", which will provide you with some useful keyword alternatives as well as help you to cement your understanding of the topic.

Search tips

You can use search operators and other punctuation to get more specific search results when searching in legal databases.

Use AND to retrieve results that contain both of your search terms

negligence AND trespass

Use OR to retrieve results that contain either of your search terms

mental state OR mens rea

Use NOT to exclude irrelevant results

mediation NOT arbitration

Use quotation marks to search for a phrase "duty of care"
Use truncation to search for related words that have the same word stem. aborig* = aboriginal, aborigine, aborigines
Wildcards replace a single character in a word. wom?n = women, woman
Grouping keywords together allows you to conduct many searches at once.

(juvenile OR youth) AND detention

Searches for: 

juvenile AND detention

youth AND detention

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