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United Kingdom: Background Information & Beginning Research

A research guide to legal sources in the UK.

UK Legal Background

The United Kingdom (UK), full name the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, is composed of England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland. Although the authority of the monarch is largely symbolic, the UK is still a constitutional monarchy; it is primarily a parliamentary democracy with full legislative authority on all issues in all areas vested in the UK Parliament.

In 1998, the UK Parliament began the process of devolution by transferring limited legislative powers to a Scottish Parliament, National Assembly for Wales, and a Northern Ireland Assembly. Accomplished via a set of official Acts for each country, the power each has to legislate depends on the powers specifically devolved to them. Basic guidance on devolved topics for Wales can be found here. The devolved powers of Northern Ireland can be found here. Current devolved competencies for Scotland can be found here. After the referendum for Scottish independence in September 2014, the status of devolution in Scotland is evolving, and the Scotland Bill 2015 that would provide further devolution is pending in Parliament. Although England currently has no individual governance, it is a topic of interest in the wake of these constitutional changes. These changes mean that information about these legal systems prior to 1998 is out-of-date, and because these institutions are still evolving, this Guide could be out-of-date by tomorrow. The official UK Government website will have the most current information and should always be checked.

In addition to these domestic changes, the UK is also affected by its membership in the European Union (EU) and as a signatory to the European Convention on Human Rights (officially the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms). Any discussion of UK law must necessarily include reference to these bodies and their court systems: the Court of Justice of the European Union (also known as the European Court of Justice) and the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR, a body of the Convention).

There is no written constitution, and instead the constitution is considered to be made up of statutes, treaties, and cases. The concept of judicial review is also in a state of flux. For a full overview of current constitutional issues in the UK, see Erin F. Delany, Judiciary Rising: Constitutional Change in the United Kingdom, 108 Nw. L. Rev. 543 (2014). 

Windsor Castle

Recommended for general beginning research

The Europa World Year Book 2014 4653-4714 (55th ed. 2014): This is a basic encyclopedia that covers a wide variety of information. These particular pages provide a basic overview of the UK and current issues. JN 1 .E85 (reference)


Daniel Greenberg, Stroud’s Judicial Dictionary of Words and Phrases (8th ed. 2012): A valuable source for definitions specific to British legal research. This is the British equivalent of Black's Law Dictionary. KD 313.S77 2012 (reference)


Using Your Electronic Resources

The most popular electronic resources - WestlawNext, Lexis Advance, HeinOnline, and Bloomberg Law - have varying levels of access to UK materials. WestlawNext is referenced more frequently in this guide because it contains official versions of case decisions - see the section in this guide on Access to Case Law. For information on using WestlawNext and HeinOnline to research journal articles and other secondary sources, see the section in this guide on Secondary Sources.

Here are a few quick notes on how you may want to use each database. For information on coverage and research help with these databases, contact a reference librarian or your product representative.

  1. WestlawNext: Contains versions of official case opinions; wide variety of UK-based secondary sources. 
  2. Lexis Advance: Good for accessing news articles. Search for "Weekender (United Kingdom)" and "News Bites - United Kingdom".
  3. HeinOnline: In addition to the Law Journal Library with over 2,000 periodicals, there are two historical collections geared towards the UK: 1) Scottish Legal History: Featuring Publications of the Stair Society; 2) Selden Society Publications and the History of Early English Law. 
  4. Bloomberg Law: Great business news coverage; has dockets for many of the UK's courts.

Students and faculty have individuals logins for all of these databases, except for HeinOnline which can be accessed through the Law Library's Online Resources page. 


UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor. Parliamentary copyright images are reproduced with the permission of Parliament. 

Recommended for targeted research

Peter Clinch, Using a Law Library: A Student’s Guide to Legal Research Skills (2d ed., 2001). Although UK law has changed quite a bit since this book was written in 2001, it still remains a useful tool for legal research methods on the UK. Some of the websites listed have since been advanced and improved, and it includes detailed descriptions of finding print sources of primary law, secondary laws, cases, commentaries, and other legal materials for each jurisdiction. KD 392 .C55 2001 (reference)


Halsbury's Laws of England (4th ed. 2013): the major encyclopedia on English and Welsh law. It is a starting point for research and the best up-to-date source for all subject areas of English law. It is arranged generally by subject; a guide to researching in Halsbury’s can be found here. KD 310.H32