10 Anatomy of a Case

Parts of a Decision

Every database and print reporter presents decisions in a slightly different way, highlighting some information, and privileging some information over other information. Commercial databases often add additional information, or organize it slightly differently (by adding a table of contents, etc). While the actual decision itself should be identical regardless of the source, this additional information and finding aids can make working with a decision much easier.

Case Name v Style of Cause

2021 SCC 30

Style of Cause: Canada v Canada North Group Inc

Case name: Her Majesty The Queen in Right of Canada


Canada North Group Inc., Canada North Camps Inc., Campcorp Structures Ltd., DJ Catering Ltd., 816956 Alberta Ltd., 1371047 Alberta Ltd., 1919209 Alberta Ltd., Ernst & Young Inc. in its capacity as monitor and Business Development Bank of Canada

– and –

Insolvency Institute of Canada and Canadian Association of Insolvency and Restructuring Professionals

One of the first pieces of information in a decision is the style of cause. This is the title by which we refer to and cite a case. However, the actual name of the case, which usually appears right after the style of cause and all available parallel citations, can be much longer.

A case can involve multiple plaintiffs and/or defendants, intervenors, and other interested parties. Particularly lengthy case names are more common in appeals, whether at the provincial or Supreme Court level. Especially at the Supreme Court level, it is not uncommon to see a decision that has multiple sets of appellants and respondents (see Canada (Attorney General) v Collins Family Trust, 2022 SCC 26). This usually occurs when multiple appeals arise dealing with sufficiently similar legal issues… Rather than hearing two similar sets of arguments, the court combines the appeals. Also typically at the appeal/Supreme Court level, many association, organizations, and other bodies may be granted intervenor status, all of whom will be listed in the case name (see British Columbia (Attorney General) v Council of Canadians with Disabilities, 2022 SCC 27).

The key point to remember about the difference between the style of cause, and the actual name of the decision, is that while the style of cause is a useful way to refer to the decision, paying some attention to the full decision name can provide valuable information during the research process: By naming all the parties (including intervenors) to a decision, we can learn about other potential sources of information about the decision. Frequently, associations and other groups provide a wealth of well-researched information (often on their websites) on the legal topics at play in the cases in which they intervene.  While it is important to pay attention to the perspective or viewpoint of the authoring organization, these materials can be a useful comment on a decision or shortcut into research in a given area of law.

Parallel Citations

In databases (but not print reporters), somewhere at the beginning of the decision, there is usually what can be a fairly lengthy paragraph of parallel citations. Most databases try to pick up every possible citation for a decision, although sometimes some are missed. While the number of parallel cites can give a clue to the perceived importance of a decision (more citations = more editors selected the decision for inclusion in reporters), the important point here is that these citations do not appear in a meaningful order that assists you in selecting appropriate parallel citations. Usually, citations belonging to the database/its publisher are prioritized, which tends to be in diametric opposition to how parallel citations should be constructed!


The date(s) the case was heard, and the date that the decision was released usually appear at the top of the case. Depending on the database, these dates might be labelled as such, but in some databases, such as the Canlii version 2021 SCC 30 (heard 2020: December 1; decided 2021: July 28), you simply have to read that assumption in. The major concern with dates is in regards to citing older (non-neutral citation) decisions… The year that the case was reported may not match the year that the decision was actually released (usually these are cases decided at the end of a calendar year), and this needs to be reflected in the citation.

Docket Number

Should you require the transcript or court file for a decision, the docket number will be invaluable, as this is the identifier by which the case travelled through the court up until it was reported. Generally speaking, once the decision has been released, the decision citation (neutral or otherwise) is how the case is identified. However, it is possible that you could end up citing a very old decision that never was reported (ie published in a print reporter) and that therefore does not have any citation other than the docket number to refer to it by.


All judges involved in hearing and deciding the case will be listed: Court trials are heard before a single decider, but most appeal courts, and some tribunals are held before a panel. In the case of panels, the decider who wrote the actual decision will usually be listed. As in 2021 SCC 30, it is not uncommon in these situations for there to be the majority reasons, but there to also be concurring or dissenting reasons.


For research purposes, headnotes are incredibly helpful, as they allow us to quickly read a summary of the key facts and issues at play in a decision, without having to read the entire decision from start to finish. It is helpful to understand when we can expect to see headnotes, and what they are likely to contain, as depending on the level of the decision, there may or may not be a headnote.

Modern Supreme Court of Canada decisions always have headnotes, usually in two forms: Firstly, a point-form summary of the major legal issues and questions at play (in 2021 SCC 30, the paragraph that starts Bankruptcy and insolvency — Priority — Source deductions — Priming charges), as well as a narrative summary of the basic facts and arguments in the case (in 2021 SCC 30, the paragraph beginning “Canada North Group and six related corporations initiated restructuring proceedings under the Companies’ Creditors Arrangement Act (“CCAA”)”). Written by the Court, these headnotes are accurate, meaningful, and often quite extensive.

Other courts rarely write their own headnotes, so it falls to commercial publishers to write headnotes for decisions deemed to be significant enough to warrant them (usually decisions that deal with more novel legal topics, that receive a lot of attention, or that are in turn appealed to a higher court). These headnotes are written by legal editors, and  provide a useful brief summary of what the editor felt were key issues in the case.

Headnotes are a suggestion, or a pointer towards the decision, but are not the actual decision itself. While headnotes are a useful shortcut in the research process, they are not truly part of the decision, and should not be cited to or relied upon.

Materials Cited/Table of Authorities

Once again, the Supreme Court of Canada is the easiest to work with… All decisions from the SCC are issued with a list of all materials cited therein, divided up into “Cases Cited,” “Statutes and Regulations Cited,” and “Authors Cited” (and/or other relevant headings). This is a great way to see a tidy list of all the materials that might be relevant and helpful to further research.

As with headnotes, decisions from other courts sometimes have this information added by editors in commercial databases (compare Comfort Capital Inc v Yeretsian, 2020 ONCA 846 as reported on Canlii versus a commercial database). This process is selective (not available for all decisions), and takes some time, so newly reported decisions rarely have a list of authorities added, and researching all the material cited in a decision will require reading through the entire decision yourself.

Words and Phrases

Some database editors will split out any terms that are defined within a decision, listing the term(s) with the relevant excerpt from the case and a citation to the paragraph(s) where the decision is found.

And Now… The Reasons!

Only after all of this do we get the case itself! While all of this front matter can be incredibly useful in making our research more efficient, it also can also be confusing, or even overwhelming, as sometimes it becomes difficult to tell what is headnote/summary and what is actual decision. Sometimes, key phrases and concepts from within the decision are repeated in the headnote, which can be challenging when looking for a pinpoint.

Usually, a sure way to know that you’ve transitioned from headnote/front matter to actual decision is the appearance of paragraph numbers. However, these numbers can themselves be tricky!

Paragraph Numbering

Paragraphs make finding and directing readers to pinpoints relatively easy, when compared to pinpoints that rely on page numbers (which rarely are translated to online sources).

However, paragraph numbers can be tricky! You may have noticed that in the McGill Guide, Rule 3.6.1 states that we should “[a]lways refer to paragraphs if there is a neutral citation or official paragraph number (i.e., determined by the court and uniform across all reporters,” i.e. paragraph numbers should not be used for pinpoints unless assigned by the court. This may seem like a meaningless and annoying rule, but it actually exists for good reason. Compare R v Grant, 2004 CarswellOnt 8779, [2004] OJ No 6254 (Ct J) on Westlaw Edge Canada, and Lexis+. What text is found in paragraph 1? How many paragraphs is the decision labelled with on each source? While this isn’t a terribly common occurrence, it’s also not infrequent.


Decisions heard by a panel of judges (such as appeal courts or the Supreme Court of Canada) may include a dissent. Dissents are written by one or more judges who disagree with the majority decision. As such, dissents are not binding, although they can provide interesting insight and explanation into the case. The danger here is that with the common use of either Ctrl+F or database highlighting that pulls us directly to key terms, it is very easy to end up in a dissent without necessarily knowing where we are. Staying aware of the context of what we’re reading, and where in the case it is found, is essential. This is not to say that the reasoning in dissents is worthless, indeed far from it: Dissents provide a valuable additional perspective on a decision that may be quite illuminating for our research. However, it is essential that when we read or consider citing a dissent, we remain fully aware of what we’re doing.



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Legal Research - A Practical Perspective Copyright © 2022 by Meris Bray is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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