"I've got this weird citation and don't know where to look: 'The Prince George, 3 Hagg. 376'"
One of my favorite moments on the reference desk is when someone asks for help finding a case from the English Reports. An amazing feat of legal publishing, the English Reports reproduce over 100,000 early English cases from the years 1220 to 1873, many of which continue to be cited in Canadian cases.
We're lucky in the Vancouver courthouse library, as we have three options for clients: the print English Reports, HeinOnline, and CommonLII (the Commonwealth Legal Information Institute). In the last two years, both HeinOnline and CommonLII have added the full reprint of the English Reports to their mix of databases. Now that those sources have had some time to establish themselves (and for us to use them), I thought a comparison might be helpful.
|Source ||Coverage ||Strengths ||Weaknesses |
|HeinOnline ||full reprint of English reports (all 176 volumes) || |
- more search features (e.g., highlighted keywords)
- PDFs of reports are crisper, more readable on screen
- more printing options
|CommonLII ||full reprint of English reports (all 176 volumes) || |
- surprisingly versatile in its search options
- PDFs of reports tend to be slightly washed out, harder to read on screen
To test out the two sources, I ran three types of searches on each:
- Where I have the name of the case only: "I'm looking for Saunders v. Vautier"
- Where I have the citation only: "I have a citation I don't recognize: 8 Co. Rep. 132a"
- Where I have a keyword or two but not much else: "I know there’s an old English case that had a great quote about the defence of fair comment in a defamation case, something about the comments being in a fair spirit"
Both HeinOnline and CommonLII feature all 176 volumes of the English Reports. The full text of all 124,000 plus cases can be searched on both sources. No difference there.
Both HeinOnline and CommonLII handled the case name search brilliantly. Each has a fairly easy way to specifically search by case name (HeinOnline's is a little better, but both sources can do this). The Saunders case was the first result for each.
For the citation search, both sources struggled. I thought HeinOnline would have an edge, as they have a dropdown option that allows a citation search. In fact, they have two dropdown options: one for an English Reports citation, and another for a "nominative citation" (the original report citation, such as our example "8 Co. Rep. 132a"). But neither citation option turned up our result in the first 25 results. Nor did a keyword search. A phrase search turned up 0 results. CommonLII didn't fare much better. Finally, I thought the "a" in the page number might be messing things up. Sure enough, pulling out the "a" from the citation, CommonLII returned the case, Turnor's Case, as the first result. The same strategy on HeinOnline returned the case as the 12th result. So far, still more or less a draw.
It was with the keyword search where I thought HeinOnline might really dominate. I decided on a proximity search:
- fair /10 spirit and "fair comment"
This approach worked well on both sources. In fact, I was totally impressed with CommonLII, where the quote I was looking for was in the first result, Hedley v. Barlow (1865), 176 ER 541. A nice win for proximity searching. On HeinOnline, the case was sixth in the result list. One feature on HeinOnline that really shines with this kind of search is that in their results list, you can view the matching text pages, showing the search terms highlighted.
Speaking of features, HeinOnline does have an edge there. HeinOnline delivers really solid relevancy results. Their PDFs of the original reports are crisp, very readable on screen, and print out great.
That said, CommonLII totally held its own in this quick comparison. Searches are fast, it supports both simple searching and more complex types of searches, and you can slice and dice search results in many ways. CommonLII is a great option for finding cases from the English Reports, particularly given that it's free and accessible anywhere.