: Leading Cases In Australian Law: A guide to the 200 most frequently cited judgments

Leading Cases In Australian Law: A guide to the 200 most frequently cited judgments

Rohit Sud

leading-cases-in-australian-law-smDaniel Reynolds and Lyndon Goddard; The Federation Press, 2016; 480pp; $79.95 (paperback) 

Leading Cases in Australian Law is the first casebook in Australia, and the only casebook published in the 21st century, to provide succinct summaries and analysis of the most significant cases in Australian law at large. As Chief Justice Robert French notes in his foreword to the book, the text is part of a venerable tradition of casebooks dealing with leading cases in all areas of law. However, Leading Cases is a thoroughly modern iteration of its predecessors, and will serve as a very useful point of reference for present day students and practitioners.

The tradition of which the Chief Justice speaks began in 1837, when John Smith wrote A Selection of Leading Cases on Various Branches of the Law with Notes (Sweet and Maxwell, 1st ed, 1837)By the time the final edition was published in 1927, this book had evolved into a portly tome stretching across two volumes.  Well before the final edition was published, a further navigational guide had become necessary, in the form of John Indermaur’s An Epitome of Leading Common Law Cases: With Some Short Notes Thereon: Chiefly Intended as a Guide to ‘Smith’s Leading Cases’ (Stevens & Haynes, 1st ed, 1873)Thankfully, Leading Cases is shorter in both the length of its title and its text.

The authors have adopted a data driven approach by using LexisNexis’s database to collect the 200 most-frequently cited cases in Australian law. They have then condensed the facts and judgments of often long and difficult cases into outlines of less than a thousand words each, accompanied by rather useful one-sentence distillations of the key proposition for which each case has been cited subsequently. A brief but pertinent commentary outlines any other major propositions and finer points of each case, related principles, as well as important subsequent developments. Key statements are extracted from the judgments in each case, by using BarNet Jade to choose, empirically, the passages most cited subsequently. The brevity of the analysis is welcome, given the wealth of detailed texts and articles on any subject available to the modern lawyer. For longer and deeper analysis, one need only follow the references provided with each case.

The book serves both as an excellent primer for students as they study these leading cases, and a quick reference for practitioners, lest they forget the sources of the principles they most commonly rely upon. Familiarisation with this book should save the inexperienced student or lawyer embarrassment when someone brings up the principle in Williams v Spautz or from citing the incorrect authority for the definition of jurisdictional error. 

Besides being a faithful reference book, Leading Cases is also an interesting read — an elusive quality in a casebook. Many practitioners will enjoy picking it up to test their own knowledge. The appendices contain a ‘hall of fame’ of judges who are most often cited, as well as a list of ‘fast risers’ — more recent cases that are cited with great frequency. The legal aficionado will be interested to note that the Engineers’ Case [(1920) 28 CLR 129] does not feature in this list and that the Tasmanian Dams Case could only be reduced to two principles rather than one. (I suggest the authors can be forgiven for that.)

The authors’ empirical approach has yielded a fascinating list, but it has meant the omission of several seminal cases that might have been included in a curated list. Brevity, too, is a double-edged sword — there will always be those looking for more detailed analysis and commentary. One can imagine how these problems might have been overcome if the book were published in electronic form, with the advantages of hyperlinks and expandable text. It will be some time before that technology becomes widely used among lawyers, and perhaps then the authors can bring John Smith’s tradition kicking and screaming into the 21st century. In the meantime, the authors have proven themselves capable custodians of this long tradition.

ROHIT SUD is a lawyer at MinterEllison.

(2016) 41(3) AltLJ 219
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