How do you start to connect legal research with actually proving a case?

**** The information written here is not legal advice and the author of this blog is not your lawyer.  These posts merely contain ideas to help you plan and organize your legal research and identify potentially helpful sources of law. ****

Whether you are defending yourself in a criminal case or suing someone in a civil case, there are some basic steps to follow when making a case in court.

In criminal court, a defendant seeks to prove that the criminal charges do not match his actions, that faulty police procedures made some of the evidence inadmissible in court, and that the evidence which is presented in court does not prove him guilty.

Here is how legal research relates to those goals:

1. Read exactly how the crimes code defines that charge and think of ways to explain that your behavior does not match with that definition.[i]

2. Examine each item of the opponent’s proposed evidence against the rules of evidence.[ii] Investigate how the police obtained that evidence and how they handled it once they had it.

3. Look at the decisions in previous cases about that same charge to see how people successfully defended themselves and to see how the courts comment on the crimes code.[iii]

4. Having read the decisions in previous cases, show how your situation differs from the cases in which people were found guilty.

In a civil court case, such as a breach of contract or a negligent injury claim, a plaintiff generally seeks to prove that whomever he’s suing owed him a promise or a duty, that the promise or duty was not upheld, and that he has suffered harm or losses because of the opponents actions or inaction.

Here is how legal research relates to those goals:

  • 1. Read books, legal encyclopedias, sample jury instructions, American Law Reports, and other explanatory sources to see how to depict the duty or obligation. Those sources should lead you to statutes, regulations, and cases. In case they are incomplete, look in the indexes to statutes and regulations and in case digests using every relevant word to be sure you locate all applicable law.
  • 2. Using case references from those explanatory sources, read case decisions to get examples of what was necessary to prove that duties were breached.
  • 3. Consult the big practitioner sets mentioned in the last text box (Causes of Action, Am Jur Trials, Proof of Facts) for help thinking about how to prove the extent of your harm or loss and how to prove your opponent’s connection to your harm or loss.
  • 4. Look for books about the legal topics that apply to your case. There are helpful books about landlord-tenant law, contract law, criminal law, etc… All of these will be in the KF call number sections of libraries. If the bar association offers continuing education for lawyers, they might publish the practical training materials from those sessions and sell them to libraries. Three good Web sites that tell about proving legal issues are Justia, Findlaw, and Nolo Press

[i] State criminal codes are available at Federal crimes are available from the House of Representatives at
[ii] Federal rules of evidence are at State evidence rules are at
[iii] To find case summaries, use a state or regional case digest, such as West’s California Digest or West’s Atlantic Digest. Digests are organized in topic order. After locating summaries of cases in the digest, find the full-text of those case opinions by using the case reporter citation provided in the digest.  If you don’t have access to digests and case reporters, at least investigate the criminal charges using a legal encyclopedia. Legal encyclopedias generally summarize the main case interpretations associated with legal topics.

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