Last Updated 24 May 2016

Finding legislation

Acts and delegated legislation are printed in statute books. Separate statute books contain all the parliament-made laws for each calendar year.

The Acts of particular jurisdictions (e.g. the Commonwealth or Queensland) are often reprinted to include amendments. These Acts are called reprinted or consolidated Acts. This makes finding the law much easier, as a consolidated Act has all the amendments inserted in the right place. Reprinted or consolidated Acts are published alphabetically in loose-leaf volumes. Reprinted Commonwealth Acts and new Commonwealth Acts can be found in a multi-volume, loose-leaf publication called Acts of the Parliament of the Commonwealth of Australia, available in the National Library of Australia collection. Reprints of Queensland Acts are contained in a publication called the Queensland Legislation Reprint.

Nowadays the most common way to find law is on the internet (for a list of useful links see the Legal Resources page).

Copies of particular by-laws can be obtained from the office of the council concerned.

Understanding legislation

Every Act will have a name and a date, such as the Family Law Act 1975 (Cth) or the Criminal Code Act 1899 (Qld). The Act’s name indicates its contents, and the date shows the year the Act passed through parliament. Care must be taken to check whether an Act has been repealed or amended in some way.

In Queensland, the most current reprint should contain all amendments. When accessing an Act, it is important to have either the most recent reprint (or consolidated version) or, where referring to the Act in its original version, to have access to all further amendment Acts that have modified the original. An Act that amends a previous Act usually has the same name, but with the word ‘amendment’ in it, for example the Succession Amendment Act 1997 (Qld) amended the Succession Act 1981 (Qld). Sometimes an Act will be passed that amends many different pieces of legislation, for example the Crime and Misconduct and other Legislation Amendment Act 2006 (Qld) or the Civil and Criminal Jurisdiction Reform and Modernisation Amendment Act 2010 (Qld). When that occurs, it may be cumbersome to track changes to one specific piece of legislation. It is for this reason that use of the most recent reprint is recommended. The first page of an Act will inform the reader of the date of the most recent reprint. For example, on the first page of the Anti-discrimination Act 1991 (Qld) it states ‘Current as at 1 July 2014’, which means that that reprint contains all amendments up until 1 July 2014.

Parts of Acts may be called divisions or parts. Acts are divided into numbered sections, which may be divided into sub-sections, then into paragraphs. When text refers to sections, it can be abbreviated and written as ‘s’ (e.g. s 109 Commonwealth of Australia Constitution Act 1900 (Imp) means section 109 of the Commonwealth Constitution Act). Multiple sections are abbreviated to ‘ss’. The same abbreviation applies for references to multiple regulations (e.g. reg 4, regs 8–10).

Often an Act will have a table of contents at the front that gives the titles of the sections, parts and divisions, and an index at the back. Sometimes there is also a schedule at the back of an Act. Schedules may contain definitions, tables, forms for court documents and other information.

Finding common law

Common law (the significant decisions of courts) is often contained in law reports, which are bound books of (usually higher) court decisions.

Several dozen series of law reports are published. Each series of reports has a different name, and each series contains decisions of different courts. Series of law reports are expensive to buy (sometimes costing thousands of dollars), and for this reason most people accessing law reports will do so via a law library or the internet.

All law reports arrange the reported cases chronologically, but the arrangement of the cases into volumes varies with the series. For example, some series of reports may arrange volumes by year, having perhaps one or two volumes in each year, while other series of reports may simply number each volume sequentially without reference to the year of the reported decisions contained within. It is important to know how a specific series of reports arranges their volumes in this regard so as to easily find the reported decision you are looking for.

Most law reports contain the names of the parties to the dispute, a summary at the front of the case that lists the facts involved and the court’s decisions (a head note), the judgment of each judge quoted verbatim and the order of the court.

Understanding common law

When a reported case is referred to, a traditionally accepted shorthand reference is used. These case references are called citations. For example, the same case may be cited as Commonwealth v Anderson (1960) 105 CLR 303 or Commonwealth v Anderson [1961] ALR 354.

The differing citations show that this case has been reported in two law report series: the Commonwealth Law Reports (CLR) and the Australian Law Reports (ALR).

In the first citation, the 105 before the CLR shows the volume of the series that contains the case. The second citation uses the date to show which volume of that series contains the case report.

Whenever the date of a case is cited in square brackets, it shows that a series adopts a sequence of yearly volumes rather than of numbered volumes. Where volumes are numbered other than by year, the date is placed in round brackets.

In both citations, the numbers 303 and 354 after the series refer to the respective pages of the volume at which the case is reported.

The citation R v Gassman [1961] Qd R 381 shows that this case is reported at page 381 in the 1961 volume of the Queensland Law Reports. The R is a shortened version of the Latin words Regina (the Queen) or Rex (the King), collectively meaning the Crown, and indicates a criminal case.

In ordinary language, a ‘v’ between the names of the parties involved in the case would normally indicate the word versus. However, in a legal citation, the ‘v’ stands for ‘and’ in civil cases and ‘against’ in criminal cases.