A law report is a record of a judicial decision on a point of law which sets a precedent.
Not all decisions taken in a court of law set a precedent, however interesting they may be in terms of the facts of the case or its consequences. A decision is only reportable if lays down a new principle of law, or changes or clarifies the existing law.
It is therefore important to:
- distinguish between those cases which do indeed lay down, change or clarify the law, and which therefore need to be reported, and those which don’t; and
- ensure that any report of a reportable case clearly states all the relevant information so that it can be relied upon by students, teachers, practitioners and judges as an accurate and authoritative statement of the principle of law (the “ratio decidendi”) on which the case was decided.
Note: A judgment transcript is not a law report!
However important the case, the transcript of a judgment does not have the same value, as a record of the decision contained in it, as a full text law report. Where, therefore, a law report is available, particularly where the case has been reported in one of the official series, The Law Reports, published by ICLR, it must be cited and referred to in that version in preference for any other: see Practice Direction (Citation of Authorities)  1 WLR 780.
Different types of law report
Law reports fall into two broad types.
- Full text law reports incorporate the full judgment(s) given by the court, together with a summary of the case known as the headnote and a number of other elements.
- Summary reports, also known as case summaries, digests, case notes etc, consist of summaries or abridgements of the judgment, and are presented in a less formal way than a full text law report.
For obvious reasons, full text reports enjoy higher status than summary reports and should be cited in preference for them. The function of summary reports is either to alert practitioners and students to cases which may not merit reporting in full, or to act as an early warning system in advance of the full report which for obvious reasons may take longer to write, edit and publish.
Where a case is not reported in a full text law report, but a transcript of the judgment is available, this may be cited in conjunction with a summary report. However, the combination of a summary report and a transcript does not enjoy the same status as a full text law report where one is available, for reasons which will become clear once one appreciates the amount of careful editorial work that goes into preparing the full report.
See also: Anatomy of a Law Report