Guidelines for Writing Case Head Notes

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In literature a head note is termed as a note placed at begining of a document that provides the brief explanatory information. Head note for a case law provides the brief of the complete document (case law). Case laws or judgements are the decision made by the judges in court of law, and a complete transcripts that can be in mange number of pages.  These judgements are important source of law application and interpretation. Head notes play an important role for law researcher, practising advocates as well as common public in finding a judgement.

Each jurisdiction usually determines whether head notes are part of the law or only an editorial device to facilitate research. Headnotes are useful for a quick scan of the judgment, but they are the editor's remarks and not the court's.Most headnotes are included by private publishers and do not constitute a part of an opinion.

Writing a Head Note for judgments

Case notes are short pieces of writing of between 300-800 words. The writing of case notes tends to follow a specific pattern.

The ability to write a clear and succinct case note is useful in and of itself as a legal skill, particularly in common law legal systems which operate a doctrine of precedent whereby judicial decisions form part of the law of the land. understanding of the essential elements of a judicial decision forms the basis of accurate analysis and enables an author to set out a brief summary of the judicial decision at the outset. In order to write an effective case note an editor should have an ability to to deconstruct a legal argument set out in a judicial decision and identify various parts of the judgment. The various parts of the case laws serve different purposes in the case note. Its mandatory to have a in depth knowledge of law to frame a case note from the available case laws. 

Starting of head notes

Before one initiate the head note writing, he / she should understand the case laws and indentified the facts, issues, legal procedure and arguments of the parties and to understand the point(s) of law that have been included by the judge. Creating a case note involves working through the judge’s reasoning and understanding how the law has been applied to the facts in order to reach the final decision. Deconstructing a judgment for writing a head notes is always beneficial, some additional information written in the head note makes it more relevant. Reading the legal argument of the parties  can be useful since this is the starting point for discovering more than one point of view on an issue.

Generally, most judgement will include a summary of the arguments of the advocates on behalf of their parties. If you are going to consider legal argument you will need to read the summary of this set out by the judge in the judicial decision.

In order to consider the arguments of the parties and find all the relevant information it is therefore necessary to read the judgment and pull out the important information you require for head note.

Before deconstructing a judicial decision it is necessary to consider which type of legal system the decision was given in. This is because different legal systems produce different types of judgments and understanding this will help you know what to expect from the judicial decision. It maybe seens that a judgment of a civil law system may not have the summary of the legal argument, so it is utmost important to understand this, if any comparitive analysis is to be done for cases across different legal system. It is always usefull to understand different types of judgments arising in various legal system. In addition to understanding the type of legal system in which judgment was given it is also important to bear in mind the level and jurisdiction of court. In countries with common law systems only courts higher in the hierarchy create precedent (binding decisions) and whilst those from lower courts might be of interest to academics they are of limited value to practitioners.


It is a good idea to make a note of which type of legal system a case comes from when writing your case note or case comment. As you write, bear in mind the constraints upon the court when reaching its decision and the affect its judgments have within its own legal structure, whether that is a national, supranational or an international one, when writing a case note. This is particularly so when considering judgments of courts which are affected by specific law.

Deconstruct legal argument

Deconstructing a legal argument is rather like completing a jigsaw puzzle. It is necessary to group types of information together (just as before starting to put the pieces of a jigsaw together, one might find all the straight edged pieces or pieces of a similar colour when preparing to complete the jigsaw puzzle).  Once all the pieces are grouped together it is then possible to put them together to create a full picture of what the judgment is about.

This means identifying the “pieces” from within the judgment itself:

  1. FACTS : These are the various events that lead to a claim being made from the judicial angle.

  2. HISTORY OF CASE : Type of action and the court(s) in which the case has been heard. This includes
    a. The type of claim: for example it  might be a claim for judicial review of administrative action, which  would be made in the High Court (Administrative Division)
    b. The history of any appeal process that has taken place and a summary of decisions that were made by previous courts lower in the hierarchy.

  3. ISSUES : Questions about the law that the case decides.These are the legal issues (points of law) that the judge has to decide.

  4. LAW AND ACTS APPLIED : This is the law that is in dispute (either legislation or case law) in the case. This will be a section of an Act or an Article in a convention). A judge in their judgement might mention several sections or laws and will also mention several cases. In terms of identifying the point of law decided it is necessary to identify that part of the legislation upon which the determination of the case rests.

  5. ARGUMENT: An explanation of the arguments presented by either side will usually only be found in judgements within common law jurisdictions that use the adversarial style of trial. The judge(s) will set out the arguments of the parties often pointing out which is the stronger argument and why.

  6. BINDING LAW TO FACTS : this is a broader examination of the law applicable to the case, the relevant law set out in the box above is the law upon which the case hinges, but the judge is also likely to set out the legislative context of the case and then provide their reasoning based on that law indicating how they are reaching their decision. This information is likely to be useful for a case comment.

  7. RATIO OF CASE: this is the legal decision which the judge comes to. It is the point of law decided by the judge(s) and will be a new, previously undecided, point of law and upon which the resolution of the case depends.

  8. CONCLUSION OR RULING: This is the result in the case. Here, for example, it is possible to state either that the claimant won or lost their claim/application or their appeal

The above step is most important for deconsting a case law with various elements of the judgments. Once a case has been deconstructed as stated above, it can be reconstructed to form a case note and then used to provide a concise summary of the case. 

Reconstruct The Decontructed argument to compose final case note

Reconstructing a legal argument: putting the pieces together Once a case has been deconstructed it can then be reconstructed. Case Head Notes usually follow a format which, although it varies slightly, will contain the following
TITLE :  This includes the case name, the number allocated to the judgment , the court in which judgment was given in, the judge(s) who heard the case and gave judgment, the date of judgment.
CATCHWORD: These are broken down into:
(1) three catchwords setting out the subject area into which the case falls so that professional lawyers, academics and others can easily search on databases. For example: “Human rights - Freedom of religion and belief – Manifestation of - …..” This categorisation helps when writing and researching case comments because it is possible to identify other relevant cases which should be considered when researching and which should be referred to in the case comment.
(2) Sometimes it is necessary to set out a brief explanation of the legal provision subject to dispute in order to make sense of the facts of the case.
(3) A brief set of catchwords explaining the key facts (narrative) in the case. Where a case hedad note does not contain a narrative part explaining the facts then the factual part of the catchwords will be slightly longer. These are written in chronological order. Usually the definite article (“the”) will be omitted.
(4) The issues in the case, that is the legal question(s) the court considered. The issues listed must match up with the ruling given by the court. When you write out the court’s decision it should answer the questions set out as issues in the case. The issues are set out in the catchwords and the ruling on the points of law (the issues) is set out in the body of the law report or case note of the case.
(5) The legislation subject to consideration and upon which the resolution of the case depended

  • The narrative and procedural paragraphs :  Some reports or case notes contain a narrative, that is an explanation of the essential relevant facts in the case and an explanation of the procedure. These paragraphs expand on the brief explanation of the facts in the catchwords.

  • The holding: This is an explanation of the new point of law in the case. It needs to succinctly summarise the decision of the court on the meaning of the legislation or the interpretation of existing case law.

  • Cases considered : Some case notes or reports include a reference to the cases that have been considered by the judges and indicate whether they were, for example, followed or distinguished or overruled. This will only apply in common law jurisdictions


Writing a good headnote requires a certain mindset, namely to approach the task in the same way as one would in solving a cross-word puzzle, negotiating the way through a maze, or working out a Rubik's cube; for all these endeavours are about meeting a challenge. Judgment headnote writing is a method by which a judgment is presented in an organised way to facilitate in determining the most relevant facts, recognising the legal issues involved, arguments and contentions of the parties with a concise discussion of the judgment and setting out the rationale behind the decision. A good headnote expresses the essence of the judgment accurately, briefly and comprehensively.

Some of the material that is irrelevant in writing a case note can be relevant while generating a case comment.