Legal Citation

University of Oxford Crest, via the Law Faculty website.The Oxford Standard for Citation Of Legal Authorities (OSCOLA) is fast establishing itself as the UK’s standard system of legal citation. It is at present undergoing revision, and the Editors welcome comments and suggestions by email before the end of the month.

It is important to disclose sources (not least to avoid charges of plagiarism), in as complete a fashion as will allow a reader to find the source easily. Systematic citation methods allow for accurate, comprehensive and consistent citation of references such as cases, statutes, books, articles, and so on; and, in the legal context, they will also provide valuable information about a case, such as when it was decided, the level of decision, and so on. There are many possible citation systems, of which Harvard maintains a very useful list of paper-based resources.

Cover of the 18th edition of the Bluebook, via its website.However, one citation system stands out, and this is one situation where you really can judge a book by its cover: the Standard System of American Legal Citation is universally called The Bluebook, because of the colour (or, I suppose, the color) of its cover (pictured right; see its wikipedia page). It was first published in 1926 (pdf); it is now in its eighteenth edition; and Peter Martin’s online Introduction to Basic Legal Citation (Cornell Legal Information Institute) is based on it. I’m not a fan: it is clumsy and overly pedantic, premised as it is on the formalist Langellian conceit that there can be a rule for every possible citation occasion. Worse than that, quite frankly, it simply looks ugly on the page. Hence, though it is the dominant US standard, I’m glad that even there it is not entirely without criticism or competition. In particular, there is the long-standing University of Chicago Manual of Legal Citation, which – maintaining the colo(u)r theme – is called the Maroon Book and on which theUniversity of Chicago Law Review has based its house-style; and the Association of Legal Writing Directors have produced a very accessible Citation Manual.

Outside the US, there are few examples of adoption of these standards. Instead, various jurisdictions have developed their own styles. For example, Australia has the Australian Guide to Legal Citation published by the Melbourne University Law Review Association. And the bilingual English-French Canadian Guide to Uniform Legal Citation (6th ed, Carswell, Toronto, 2006) has been produced by the McGill Law Journal (pdf summary here; html summary here).

However, most of these guides continue to be available in print, and for a price (though The Bluebook is also available online by subscription). On Slaw, Gary Rodrigues has argued that there should be free and open online access to the McGill Guide (an argument which could with profit be applied to the others as well):

A Modest Proposal – The McGill Guide

… Like the Bluebook, the McGill Guide has the potential to provide the “systematic method by which members of the legal profession communicate” to one another in Canada. What is needed to achieve this result? One key element is easy access which could be provided if the McGill Guide was made available to judges, lawyers and law students on all of the online services in the country including CANLII, SOQUIJ, and every commercial legal publisher. … The widespread use of a single style guide will help to ensure that legal citations and references are complete and useful. By making the McGill Guide available virtually everywhere, the likelihood is greater that it will be used by an increasing number of members of the legal profession, especially if its use is reinforced in training programs for judges and lawyers. …

There are some general online citation standards, such as The Columbia Guide to Online Style, some of which have been applied in the legal context (see, in particular, Rodrigues’s Electronic Citations and Case Citators – Collaborative Outsourcing).

Not only does OSCOLA provide an elegant, coherent and consistent system of citation, but its great benefit is that is openly, fully and freely available online. There is as yet no standard Irish system of legal citation – what might, perhaps, be called a Green Book – though the style guide used by Round Hall publishers may provide a potential starting point. As a consequence, OSCOLA is what I recommend to anyone who is desperate enough to ask for my advice about citation style. It is an excellent venture, well worth supporting. Check it out; and if you have any comments about it, get them to the editors before the end of the month!