5 Secondary Sources: Encyclopedias, Dictionaries, and Other Definers


As mentioned previously, many of these sources sit somewhere between true primary and true secondary sources, and as such, they provide us with a highly edited, organized, and curated selection of key information and pointers towards additional material.

Some of these sources serve as excellent starting places for research, such as legal encyclopedias. Others, such as dictionaries and words and phrases, can be used throughout the research process as a way to zero in on the legal definition for a particular term, which can be nearly impossible to find via conventional keyword searching.

Legal Encyclopedias


  • New area of law to research
  • Need to compare provincial regimes across Canada
  • Want to understand how area of law fits together
  • Great place to start answering many research questions

Legal encyclopedias are often a great place to start your research. They are set up in such a way to allow the reader to easily see how the various aspects of an area of law is organized, and how it may fit or divide into both broader and narrower areas of law. Legal encyclopedias tend to use numerous footnotes with extensive citation to important or leading cases, as well as applicable legislation. In this way, they serve as an excellent way to both ground yourself in a new area of law, and get pointed to key next steps. As well, these can be quick sources to find key words, concepts, and cases to use elsewhere.

Start here but don’t end here!  The cases and legislation cited in an encyclopedia might be worth citing (after you read and note them up), but legal encyclopedias themselves are only a starting place, and they are not something that should be cited in a paper or factum in most cases. Think of legal encyclopedias in the same way you were probably taught to use Wikipedia… They aren’t a bad place to start, and they can point you towards very relevant and useful material, but they are never the place to end your research, and as such, shouldn’t appear in a bibliography.

Canadian Legal Encyclopedias

There are two major Canadian legal encyclopedias, Halsbury’s Laws of Canada (commonly referred to as Halsbury’s, on Lexis+) and the Canadian Encyclopedic Digest (commonly referred to as the CED, on Westlaw Edge Canada). Both allow you to take a broad look at a hierarchically arranged list of legal topics, with entries that set out basic principles, and cite key legislation and cases.

Source Coverage Features Best Use Case
CED Ontario and Western Provinces Contains links to the Canadian Abridgement, which allows you to link directly to a larger body of relevant caselaw. Ontario-focused research, seeking to move quickly to a large body of related caselaw.
Halsbury’s All of Canada, including Quebec Allows easy nation-wide research and comparison, covers some more obscure topics Need to compare/contrast all provinces with relevant legislation, less focus on immediate need for extensive caselaw.

Both tools can be searched at the top level (good if you don’t know where your topic might fit in), or at any point as you browse down the tree structure to the actual content.

While the focus on this book is on Canadian research, legal encyclopedias are a great place to very briefly look outside our borders, as they are an excellent way to get the general sense of how a legal topic is treated elsewhere, in a relatively quick and easy way.

American Legal Encyclopedias

There are two major US legal encyclopedia sets that cover the entire country and all areas of law. Interestingly, they are both available via Westlaw US (depending on your subscription). Like the Canadian encyclopedias, they are arranged topically, and contain extensive citations to key cases and legislation. It is worth noting that these citations are often far more voluminous than in the Canadian sources, due to the simple fact that many more legal topics are addressed at the state level, rather than the federal level, so citations to a multitude of state Codes are often included.

American Jurisprudence 2d (usually referred to as AmJur) covers over 400 legal topics, and sets out to “collect, examine, and summarize the broad principles of American law.” Excerpts of the titles on Contracts, Damages, and Divorce and Separation are available through FindLaw, and provide an excellent illustration of AmJur is organized.

Corpus Juris Secundum (usually referred to as CJS) is similar in both scope and coverage, offering a nation-wide summary of law, with explanations, limitations, and exceptions to the rules.

In many cases, these sources give us enough information, written in a fairly accessible manner, to give us a very good grounding in a given topic and often point us towards key additional textbooks and articles. As such, I usually recommend one or both as an excellent starting point for anyone seeking to expand their legal research into the US.

UK Legal Encyclopedia

Before there was Halsbury’s Laws of Canada, there was Halsbury’s Laws of England. First published over 100 years ago, and currently in its fifth edition, it is a “comprehensive narrative statement of the law of England and Wales.” Some larger libraries have the current and/or older editions in available in print. These older editions can still be valuable to Canadian researchers, as many older Canadian cases and texts refer to these older editions. As well, some libraries subscribe to the Halsbury’s Laws of England – Canadian Converter, which “identifies the federal and provincial statutes and cases demonstrating the Canadian application of the law set out in Halsbury’s Laws of England.” Available on Lexis+, depending on subscription.

Legal Dictionaries


  • Need a legal (not general) definition for a term
  • Looking for pointers towards relevant caselaw or legislation

The use and definition of words in a legal context is not always exactly the same as in plain usage. Therefore, legal dictionaries have come into being. Often, the definitions found in these volumes are drawn from caselaw, legislation, or leading texts.

The leading Canadian legal dictionary is The Dictionary of Canadian Law, currently in its fifth edition. A more basic, free alterative is Irwin’s Canadian Online Legal Dictionary.

However, the leading legal dictionary is Black’s Law Dictionary. Although it is American, it is nonetheless regarded even in Canada as a leading source. Larger law libraries will carry it in print, and the most current edition (11th) is also available through some Westlaw subscriptions that include US sources. For comparison, The Dictionary of Canadian Law defines over 31000 terms; Black’s includes over 55000 definitions. Therefore, while starting with a Canadian source is always the best strategy, if it does not include an entry for the word you’re looking for, Black’s is always the next source to check.

Words & Phrases


  • Need to know how a judge or other decider has the interpreted the meaning of a term; not necessarily as legislators intended

Words & phrases sets are a uniquely legal spin on definitions. Like a dictionary, they are alphabetical lists of words and phrases, but unlike dictionaries, the “definitions” are judicial interpretations of the meaning(s) of each term. Rather than an editorialized definition, each entry consists of brief relevant excerpts from court or tribunal decisions; i.e. what does a judge or other decider deem the term to mean, in a particular context. Context is key, and each definition under a word or phrase will have a bold type-face description of the applicable area of law. One word may have multiple definitions, as it is used in multiple contexts, and it is essential to understand which definition is most relevant to your context at hand.

  • Words & Phrases on Westlaw Edge Canada
  • Canadian Legal Words & Phrases on Lexis+


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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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