3 Evaluation of Sources

Using subscription-based or government-produced legal databases for much of our research sometimes dulls our senses to the need to continually assess the sources we use: Just because a source really is the only, or only official source, does not mean that we should simply use it without any critical reflection!

This is not to imply that the major sources we rely on are trying to deliberately mislead or confuse us. However, the reality is that even the best-intentioned and administrated sources can have errors creep in, do get out of date, and inherently reflect the worldview of the people, company, or government entity that controls them.

As well, practical legal research can often mean looking outside the more proscribed academic sources we have learned to rely on, and looking to the open Web… Commentary on extremely new or newly amended caselaw and legislation often takes weeks or months to show up in academic literature, so researching very timely material may require us to look at sources such as law firm blogs, news articles, or other less vetted sources. These sources can be useful and trustworthy, but they also can be inaccurate, out of date, or simply inapplicable. The reality of the Web is that much English-language content originates in the United States, where the legal system and laws are quite different from what is applicable in Canada. It is very easy to look at a source that is speaking to a legislative or judicial regime that is totally inappropriate in a Canadian context, without even realizing we’re doing so.

You may have learned about the CRAAP test in the past, which suggests factors to consider to become a discerning information evaluator and consumer. With a few tweaks, it is still relevant to us now:

Currency: Look for a date on the source. Do you know that there’s been a significant amendment to legislation, or major new case since this date? It might no longer be accurate. If there is no date available, and you’re researching a time-sensitive topic, be wary of the source. For legislative sources, check the currency date or consolidation date to know what is (and is not) included in terms of showing what is in force.

Relevance: In terms of legal research, replace this with jurisdiction. Is this author/source originating in/writing about Canadian or Ontario law (as applicable)? The law of child support in Ontario, California won’t be relevant to research about support in Ontario, Canada! If the jurisdiction isn’t clear, do not trust the information, even if it seems otherwise reasonable… Jurisdiction is such a key, over-riding consideration in law, that to neglect or hide it should raise suspicions.

Authority: Who wrote the material, and where is it hosted? If you can’t tell, do not use this source. On the other hand, if it’s written by lead counsel in a significant recent case, and hosted on the site of a major Canadian law firm, this is more likely to be good quality information. Government websites, for both the Federal and provincial websites, are trustworthy, in that they are unlikely to attempt to deliberately mislead their readers. However, it is still important to consider that certain perspectives (colonist, capitalist, etc) are likely to be baked in to information presented by even purportedly neutral sources, and it is important to retain a consideration of what this may mean for the information presented to you.

Accuracy: At the most basic level, is it well written? Be dubious about a source that has many egregious grammar mistakes. Typos happen, links break, but if they are in high density, we should be concerned about the accuracy of the information as well, as this may reflect sloppy production, or a lack of maintenance. In terms of legal research, this also encompasses accurate and correct citations to cases and legislation. We rely on good citations to help us find the sources the author discusses/cites. If we are unable to find these sources due to poor citation, it is difficult, if not impossible, to verify that the sources say what the author claims they say. We can also consider whether the information that this source is trying to impart to us fits with what we already know. This is not suggesting that we should seek to remain in an information echo-chamber. Rather, if a source is presented information that is diametrically opposed to every other source we have consulted to that point, we should investigate the situation further before adopting the new information.

Purpose: Are you being sold something? Or propagandized? What audience is the information intended for? Laypeople or legal professionals? None of these factors should immediately disqualify a source from any use, but they should all be taken into account and related to what use we plan to make of the source. For example, statistics or other information from any source listed on the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Extremist Files should be viewed, at best, with the deepest of suspicion. However, these sources may be quite useful in demonstrating how these same statistics are twisted and manipulated, if not entirely made up!

Approach all sources of information with a critical eye. What is being shown to you, and how it is being presented to you, is never neutral. Database and search engine algorithms are opaque to us, so while we know that search results are presented to maximally advantage, that advantage isn’t always ours! Maintain a questioning attitude, and ensure that you consume information on your own terms. Remember that if a source or service is free, it is likely that you are in fact the product, not the consumer.


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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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