Origins of law reporting

Law reporting has a venerable but occasionally chequered history. No one now would seriously dispute the need for accurate and reliable reports of legal proceedings, published promptly and at a price affordable to both students and professionals. Yet the fulfillment of such aims was, until 1865, achieved in a somewhat piecemeal, even haphazard, fashion.

Regular reporting began with the Year Books, transcribed from the Plea Rolls begun in 1189. The Year Books, which ran from 1285 to 1537, contained notes of cases written up in Anglo-Norman by apprentices to the law. By the 16th century individual reporters were publishing volumes or series of case reports under their own names. These are now collectively known as The Nominate Reports. Many are still cited and referred to today (particularly those edited and collected into a series called The English Reports) but they varied enormously in coverage, accuracy and reliability.

In 1849 a report of the Law Amendment Society complained that although the decisions of the courts and tribunals were “the formal constituents of the common law,” they were in no respect officially promulgated. There was growing dissatisfaction with the system.

In 1863 WTS Daniel QC wrote to the Solicitor-General, Sir Roundell Palmer, complaining about the problem. He pointed out that there were no fewer than 16 series of authorised reports, and complained of their “enormous expense, prolixity, delay and irregularity in publication,” and of their “imperfection as a record, for want of continuity.”

The letter was accompanied by a “Paper on Legal Reports” written by Nathaniel Lindley QC (who went on to become Master of the Rolls and a Law Lord) in which he set out what in his view were the objects of a law report and the criteria for selection of cases.

Formation of the Council

A general meeting of the Bar held at Lincoln’s Inn on 28 November 1864 decided to adopt a scheme to publish the decisions of the superior courts of law and equity under the management of a Council composed of members of the Inns of Court and of the Incorporated Law Society. The Council of Law Reporting was duly constituted in 1865, and was incorporated as a company limited by guarantee in 1867. Its memorandum of association included the following objects:

“1. The preparation and publication, in a convenient form, at a moderate price, and under gratuitous professional control, of Reports of Judicial Decisions of the Superior and Appellate Courts in England.

“2. The issue, periodically or occasionally, of any subsidiary or other publications relating to legal subjects which it may be considered expedient to combine with the publication of such Reports, including the Statutes of the Realm …”

In 1865 the reporters began their work in Westminster Hall, the home of the superior Courts, in Lincoln’s Inn Old Hall and the Rolls Court in Chancery Lane. The present Royal Courts of Justice were not opened until 1883. The first volumes of the Law Reports appeared in 1866 by which time there were over 400 subscribers at 5 guineas a year. The reports were divided into 11 different series, covering the various divisions of the courts (but already reduced from the antecedent 16). A decade later these were consolidated into six series, following the reorganisation of the courts of law and equity effected by the Judicature Acts 1873–75.

In 1891 the Council introduced the simplified arrangement of dated annual volumes in four series which continues to this day, comprising Appeal Cases (covering the House of Lords – latterly the UK Supreme Court – and the Privy Council) and separate volumes for the Chancery, Queen’s (or King’s) Bench and Family (formerly the Probate, Divorce and Admiralty) Divisions of the High Court and appeals or references therefrom. The standard abbreviations for these are well known: AC, Ch, QB (or KB) and Fam (formerly P).

Selection of cases

The “Paper on Legal Reports” by Nathaniel Lindley QC set out what was required for a good law report. He started by saying that care should be taken to exclude from the reports those cases which passed without discussion and which were valueless as precedents and those which were substantially repetitions of what was reported already. On the other hand, he said care should be taken to include:

  • All cases which introduce, or appear to introduce, a new principle or a new rule.
  • All cases which materially modify an existing principle or rule.
  • All cases which settle, or materially tend to settle, a question upon which the law is doubtful.
  • All cases which for any reason are peculiarly instructive.

He then said that reports should be accurate, contain everything material and useful and be as concise as was consistent with those objectives. In particular they should show the parties, the nature of the pleadings, the essential facts, the points contended for by counsel and the grounds on which the judgment was based as well as the judgment, decree, or order actually pronounced.

These guidelines are still followed today.

Other publications

In 1866 the Council began publishing the Weekly Notes (WN) as a way of making decisions more quickly available and of covering additional cases which, while of interest, did not merit a full law report. It was superseded in 1953 by the Weekly Law Reports (WLR), which aimed to make full-length reports available in advance of The Law Reports, and to cover additional cases.

In addition to these general series the Council, or The ICLR as it has more recently become known, has launched a number of more specialist series of law reports. An edition of the Statutes began publication, as anticipated in the Council’s objects, in 1866. The Law Reports Indian Appeals (LR Ind App) ran from 1872 until 1950 and were intended to cover the increasing volume of business reaching the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council from the courts in the Indian subcontinent, and perhaps regarded as of more specialised or localised interest to practitioners. The Restrictive Practices Cases (LR RP), launched in 1957, were later incorporated into the Industrial Court Reports (ICR) from 1972 (renamed Industrial Cases Reports in 1975), which covers employment, discrimination and pensions law. The Business Law Reports (Bus LR) were launched in 2007 to meet the demands of practitioners dissatisfied with the existing coverage of company, commercial and intellectual property cases; and in 2009 the ICLR launched the Public and Third Sector Law Reports (PTSR) to provide more coverage of local authority, charity and ecclesiastical cases.

Most notable (and useful) of the subsidiary publications were the cumulative and consolidated Digest of Cases, which appeared in a series of multi-volume editions from 1865 until 1950, and was succeeded by the Consolidated Index to Leading Law Reports. These cumulative indexes list all the cases published not only by the ICLR but also in other leading general or specialist series, giving parallel citations; the subject matter covered by reference to a standardised alphabetical taxonomy; and the cases and legislation judicially considered.

More recently, ICLR has published a collection of Leading Planning Cases in a single reference volume, at the invitation judges and practitioners, with the aim of avoiding the need to include commonly cited cases in court bundles.

Digitisation and the Internet

In the 1990s, the ICLR formed an alliance with Context Ltd to digitise its archive of case reports dating back to 1865. The result was the ELR – the Electronic Law Reports, consisting of a set of CD roms containing the entire output of The Law Reports, plus further discs including the Weekly Law Reports, the Industrial Cases Reports and the Statutes. When it became practicable to do so, this content was put online, via a platform which had by then changed its name from Context to Justis. ICLR also licensed the digitised content to other third parties, including Lexis and Westlaw. In 2000 ICLR began publishing free overnight case summaries on its own website, initially cited as Daily Law Notes, now as WLR Daily or WLR (D), of any cases likely to be reported in full in the Weekly Law Reports or one of its specialist series.

In 2011 the ICLR launched its own platform for the online delivery of all its case report content, ICLR Online. As paper subscriptions have waned, demand for direct online access to ICLR’s content has inevitably increased. Over the subsequent decade, ICLR has transformed itself from being a print publisher that also delivers content online, to being primarily now an online publisher that also delivers some of its content in print.

To find out more about ICLR’s online service and its print series, see our Products pages.