The use and abuse of headnotes

If you have access to formally reported cases, such as the Industrial Cases Law Reports, you will see that they include a headnote. These are short summaries of the case and the legal principle it decided.

Headnotes are useful. It’s easier to follow a complex judgment if you have some idea of where it’s going. It’s also helpful if you’re searching for a relevant case. Often a quick read of the headnote can tell you that the case you thought might be on point isn’t.

But the headnote isn’t part of the case itself. A description of a Court of Appeal judgment is not the judgment, anymore than a map is an area of land. If you’re relying on the case, you need to read and understand the whole case, not just the headnote. Headnote are incomplete by definition – and very occasionally inaccurate or misleading. They rarely capture the full nuance of the court’s position or the logic behind it.

The same goes for any sort of summary of a case, whether in a book, a journal or an online bulletin. Ultimately, there is no substitute for dealing directly with the judgment itself.

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