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Law - Law for non-lawyers: understanding legal sources

English legal resources can broadly be divided into primary and secondary sources.

Primary sources

These define the law and include legislation and case law and comprise Acts of Parliament, Statutory Instruments, governmental orders and regulations, and case reports (case law).


The law made by Parliament. It comprises primary and secondary legislation. Acts or Parliament are the primary legislation. Statutory Instruments allow the provisions of an Act of Parliament to be subsequently brought into force or altered without Parliament having to pass a new Act are referred to as delegated, subordinate or secondary legislation.

Case law or common law

Comprises the judgements in courts. It shows the way in which legislation is enforced. It comprises authoritative precedents where judges have made rulings that clarify the principles of law in a recorded case. Under English law, how a judge deals with a case, and the way legislation is interpreted is a vital part of the legal process and can set precedents for future decisions.

Orders and regulations

Orders and regulations imposed by the Government are also primary sources.

Secondary sources

Journal articles and other works that discuss the law and its interpretation but do not form part of the law themselves. They include Parliamentary Papers and Commentary.

Parliamentary Papers

These sometimes make primary sources easier to understand. They include Green and White Papers, which outline government intentions for proposed legislation as well as parliamentary debates during the framing of statutes. They may even influence decisions in case law.

In legal essays you may need to treat Parliamentary Papers as primary sources and cite them. Ask your tutor for guidance.

Parliamentary Papers also include secondary materials on how particular laws function and government policy in action. Parliamentary papers are increasingly available online from websites such as the Official Documents website, United Kingdom Parliament, and Hansard.


Commentary comprises books and journal articles written to aid understanding of legislation and case law. Always remember that secondary sources represent only the author’s interpretation of the law, and carry no legal weight. If in doubt, always refer to primary legal information sources.

The Library has a selection of textbooks and research texts which can be found through the Library Catalogue or Discovery Service. One of the most notable general reference sources is Halsbury’s Laws of England. This is available online through LexisLibrary and a printed copy may be found shelved in the Law Reference Collection.

The Discovery Service offers a good general search of academic and legal journals but great care has to be taken to ensure an article discusses English law and not the law of another country. It is therefore recommended that you use the specialist legal databases for finding law articles: Westlaw, LexisLibrary, or HeinOnline.

The Library also has a selection of printed law journals. Recent issues of popular journals are kept on the ground floor in Area 0B; older issues are shelved in alphabetical order by journal title on the second floor.

Further Information

Library guides are available to download from the Library website that discuss different legal sources in more detail. Search the Library guides for "legal sources".


The official report of all parliamentary debates

• HeinOnline 

A collection of various legal sources. Useful for law, international relations, political and historical studies but with strong American bias although it does include the English Reports, covering important cases reported before the Official Law Reports started in 1865 and Statutes of the Realm 1235-1713

Primary and secondary legal resources, plus UK newspapers.

The supreme legislative body for the UK, British Crown Dependiencies, and British Overseas Territories.

Access the daily record of debates in both the House of Commons and the House of Lords right up to the present (the Weekly Information Bulletin, business papers, Committee publications and Register of Members’ Interests are also available). Includes Hansard.

• Westlaw 

Primary and secondary legal resources plus EU materials.

Your Subject Team

Mystery Beck

Faculty Librarian Law & Criminology

Email: Mystery.Beck@port.ac.uk

Phone: (023) 9284 3240

Sharon Bittner

Assistant Faculty Librarian

Email: sharon.bittner@port.ac.uk

Phone: (023) 9284 3234