Legal Research Skills: How Competent are Our Lawyers?
Shaikh Mohamed Noordin*
The most vociferous criticism expressed by any Malaysian judge on the
High Court judge Datuk VT Singham while admitting chambering students.
He said that the court regretfully noted that many who came before his court
were not very serious in carrying out their duties. While presiding over cases
adequate submissions, resulting in judges having to do their own research.
In response to the judge’s criticism, the Bar Council plans to introduce a
compulsory programme called the Continuing Legal Education to improve
the competency of lawyers in various areas including legal research skills.
The ability to conduct legal research is one of the many essential skills that a
lawyer needs, regardless of the area or type of practice.
The purpose of legal research is not just to find the best possible precedents
or authorities to support a legal argument. Legal research serves a wider
purpose, which includes locating relevant authorities in statutes, case law
or other primary legal sources in relation to a particular issue. Based on that
research,they will be able to weigh the likely outcomeofa caseanddetermine
the amount to claim based on precedents of the past. This is however, far
more difficult than it sounds. The lawyers have to consider:
• Whether the issues are correctly identified or missed altogether. The
issue of identification is crucial for effective research.
• The law is constantly changing. New precedents over-rule old cases.
A split decision of the Federal Court makes it even more difficult to
determine how the next case will be decided.
• The dates of coming into force of particular sections of an Act may
differ from the rest of the sections. Although royal assent may have
been granted, some Acts may not automatically be in force and may
date and the date of coming into force.
* Managing Librarian Tay Partners, a member of theAmericanAssociation of Law Librarians
“Judge VT Singham Slams Poor Calibre of Lawyers”, The New Straits Times, July 20, 2007.
Abdul Malik Ishak J has withdrawn his first judgment in the case of Tan Guek Tian and
Anor v Tan Kim Kiat @ Chua Kim Kiat  3 AMR 758;  3 MLJ 521;  8 CLJ 215,
rendered on January 10, 2007, after realising that the main Act referred to in the case, the
Mental HealthAct 2001 (Act 615) had not come into force at that time, though it was enacted
as far back as 2001. See Tan Guek Tian Anor v Tan Kim Kiat @ Chua Kim Kiat (No 2) 
5 AMR 136;  9 CLJ 215.
The Law Review 2008120
• In many areas, there are conflicting decisions or no binding authority.
creative analysis to the existing case law or create an argument based
on the doctrine of stare decisis.
Why do legal research?
Research is an important element in legal practice. Lawyers are expected
to perform research to an acceptable standard as a competent practitioner.
Lawyers are responsible for uncovering as many legal authorities as possible
to convince the judges. Citations to authorities enable lawyers to point out
the relevant law for the judges to affirm that what the lawyers allege is the
applicable law. For familiar cases, the judge probably already knows the
law well, but citations to authorities are still needed. However, in obscure
cases, the judge will need the lawyer to explain the applicable law, therefore,
citations to statutes and cases are essential for this purpose. If there is no case
on point in the jurisdiction, one will need to:
• find a case on point in a foreign jurisdiction. English cases are likely to
India and Canada) cases may be considered due to the similar legal
system and historical background;
• find cases on analogous issues and make a novel argument;
even willing to make new rulings by following persuasive authorities
that are cited to them in court submissions.
Complexity of legal research
Legal research can prove to be difficult and frustrating particularly without
a proper understanding of the hierarchical structure of legal resources. Law
to many. Law is document-intensive, the constantly increasing quantity of
legal material and the growing interdisciplinary nature of legal research do
not make it easier. The result is an ever-expanding core collection for the
lawyer to consult with.
task and demands good legal research skills from the lawyer as precedents
vary in their legal vitality or the extent to which they maintain legal relevance,
authority and applicability. Some precedents are more legally relevant and
authoritative than others. The choice of precedent to use therefore is also of
prime importance. Although there are more tools, such as new indices and
Best, Catherine P, Best Guide to Canadian Legal Research, http://legalresearch.org/Default.htm.
121Legal Research Skills: How Competent are Our Lawyers?
harder rather than easier. There are more bases to cover:
• The law of other jurisdictions must often be researched.
• Computer research has introduced the need to be completely current,
and require new competency.
• There has been a dramatic increase in the volume of Malaysian case
law and statutory material.
• Secondary sources have grown exponentially.
In Malaysia, the reliance on common law began to change dramatically as
the legislature began to codify rules into statutes. Almost all areas of law are
now legislated in written form. Despite an increased emphasis on formal
by the court as to the application of the law. Hence, judicial decisions will
continue to increase the source of law in Malaysia. Lawyers must always be
certain and sure about the validity of the legislation before using them as
Thus, as sources of “the law” abound, law students must realise that the
and hierarchy of authorities, all affecting different levels of jurisdiction and
people, published in assorted formats with different terminology to suit each
instance. Most importantly, all are in force for and from various periods of
time, some of which may or may not be applicable today. Some may not be
applicable today but apply to the facts of a circumstance at the particular
time the law was in force.
One fundamental error many law students make is to assume that the law
and legal process are static concepts. Lawyers and judges may call upon a
variety of sources of law in order to mount their legal arguments, and the
numerous sources from which the law is derived are subject to interpretation.
Clearly they need to be familiar with the various sources of law and how
they are organised in the books and the libraries, but that’s not all. They
would also need to formulate research strategies to describe which source,
of several sources, they should consult. In brief, research is the continuous
repetition of search. There are many ways of doing legal research, but the
key is being knowledgeable about the sources available in order to be able
to use the relevant sources efficiently and effectively to retrieve the relevant
but learning good legal research skills is one of the best ways to avoid being
trapped in embarrassing mistakes.
The Law Review 2008122
Standard of legal research required
The concept of legal research malpractice and the extent to which a lawyer
has adequately carried out legal research are rarely discussed in Malaysia,
although there have been several occasions where the topic has been raised.
Perhaps the most significant one was in the Malaysian Academy of Law Bill
which states that one of the functions of the Academy is to promote
legal research in the profession.
However, there are cases to mark the importance of legal research in legal
practice in foreign cases. West Group has created a key number under the
topic “attorney-client” specifically to indicate cases where the failure to
perform sufficient legal research during the representation was ground for
complaint. According to Best,
there are quite a number of Canadian cases
prescribing how the courts have set the standards of legal research expected
of counsel appearing before them. For example, in Lougheed Enterprises Ltd
the court held that counsel has a duty to be aware of all cases
on point decided within the judicial hierarchy on which the case might turn
and refer them to the court. The court noted that “on point” does not mean
cases whose resemblance to the case before the court is in the facts. It means
cases which decide on the same point of law. One may think that one can
justify for not referring to a binding decision because it is distinguishable
on its facts. However, such a determination is for the court to make, not the
The court in Lougheed v Armbruster,10
• Counsel cannot discharge his duty by not bothering to determine
whether there is a relevant authority. Ignorance is no excuse.
• The duty to the court does not go as far as the duty to one’s client to
be persuasive, which often requires counsel to produce authorities
outside the hierarchy of British Columbia.
“Attorney-General of Malaysia, Dato’ Abdul Gani Patail has Urged Malaysian Lawyers to
Strike a Balance between Technology and Traditional Ways of Conducting Legal Research”,
The New Straits Times, March 11, 2002.
Malaysian Academy of Law Bill 2002, cl 4 (1)(c), Functions of Academy.
Hong, Carolyn, “Law Academy to Focus on Research: the Proposed Academy of Law will
Focus on Promoting Legal Research and be a Forum for Exchanging Ideas between the
Different Sections of the Legal Profession. Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department Datuk
Dr Rais Yatim said the Academy would also Help Maintain and Promote High Standards
of Conduct in the Profession”, The New Straits Times, June 11, 2001.
Ms Best is a research lawyer with the law firm of Boughton in Vancouver, British
Columbia and is an Adjunct Professor with the Faculty of Law at the University of British
(1992) 63 BCLR (2d) 316 (CA), http://legalresearch.org/docs/armbruster.html.
10  2 WWR 657, http://legalresearch.org/docs/armbruster.html
123Legal Research Skills: How Competent are Our Lawyers?
• Counsel is not expected to search out unreported cases, however if
counsel knows of an unreported case on point, he must bring it to the
Failure to conduct proper research can have devastating consequences. In
another Canadian case, World Wide Treasure Adventures Inc v Trivia Games Inc,11
counsel applied for an injunction without first understanding or researching
the applicable law. Gibbs J ruled that counsel had been negligent in the
performance of his duty and awarded solicitor-client costs against counsel
personally. The amount of the taxed bill of costs was significant.
Perhaps the strongest criticism of a counsel’s failure to conduct research was
levelled in Gibb v Jiwan12
by Ferguson J. The case involved a dispute over
priority to claims against land registered under the Ontario Land Titles Act.
After deciding the point of law, Mr Justice Ferguson commented extensively
obligation of a counsel:
• to be competent,
• to keep abreast of developments in their own area of practice,
• to give their clients advice based on an adequate consideration of the
they support or contradict the position that counsel is advocating.
He ordered both counsels to deliver a copy of his comments to their clients.
In Central Eastern Trust Co v Rafuse,13
the Supreme Court of Canada ruled
Asolicitor is not required to know all the law applicable to the performance
he must have a sufficient knowledge of the fundamental issues or principles
of law applicable to the particular work he has undertaken to enable him to
perceive the need to ascertain the law on relevant points...and to discover
those additional rules of law which, although not commonly known, may
readily be found by standard research techniques.
A litigator who did not conduct sufficient research thus faces the possibility
of being sued by his client and also of censure by the court through an award
11 (1987) 16 BCLR 135 (SC), http://legalresearch.org/docs/trivia.html.
12  OJ No 1370 [QL] (Ont Gen Div), http://legalresearch.org/docs/gibb.html.
13 (1986) 31 DLR(4th) 481 (SCC), 524, http://scc.lexum.umontreal.ca/en/1986/1986rcs2-147/1986rcs2-
The Law Review 2008124
of costs. For a solicitor, failure to understand the law or conduct the research
necessary to gain an understanding of it will result in personal liability to
Possible causes of deficiency in legal research skills
Although many in the profession recognise the need of legal research in their
practice, some universities in Malaysia are still not quick enough to address
these needs by offering optimal legal research skills to their students. It is
not known how comprehensive legal research training has been conducted in
our universities and which universities are doing it. So far, there is no formal
survey to evaluate how legal research is taught in our universities or private
But similar programmes are hardly heard of in the private colleges.15
It is however quite understandable why legal research is given less priority as
compared to other crucial subjects in the compact scheduled programmes of
the universities. On the other hand, students are not required to immediately
apply the research techniques taught during the first-year course, they are
which may become obsolete when it comes to practice.16
Feedback from our graduates and law firm librarians confirmed that the need
for legal research skills is quite pressing. Research in the academic setting is
presented in an unproblematic manner and neatly packaged. Problems are
usually predefined and therefore always likely to have an answer. Most of the
students admit to being spoon-fed and as such, are not familiar to conducting
lacking familiarity with the purpose and application of the research tools.
We need to closely examine the “possible causes” that have contributed to
the inability to carry out effective legal research by a significant number of
our students. Are legal research classes too bibliographical as opposed to
process oriented? Are legal research classes given too early or too late or too
14 University of Malaya, International Islamic University of Malaysia and Universiti
15 Practitioners in public and private sectors rarely have the opportunities to attend such
courses. The last Legal Information Research course for public service officials was conducted
by the Judicial and Legal Institute (ILKAP) from December 1–2, 2004, see ILKAP Training
Calendar 2004. Bar Council Library conducted only one similar programme throughout
the year of 2005 for practitioners in the private sector namely “Legal Research Skills” on
September 28, 2005.
16 Hemmens, Ann E, “The Current Status of Advanced Legal Research Instruction: a Survey
of ABA-Accredited Law Schools”, April 2000 (a Master paper submitted to the faculty of
the School of Information and Library Science of the University of North Carolina, USA).
125Legal Research Skills: How Competent are Our Lawyers?
during the course?Are students placing too much reliance on compilations of
printed materials and casebooks thereby failing to use sources necessary for
finding and updating primary material? Is it due to the lack of a structured
course or lack of a compulsory and assessed legal research methods course
as part of the curriculum?17
Legal research in the law firm culture
Moving into practice involves developing different research skills to those
required in the academic field and using some sources previously not
bibliographical understanding that may consist of giving a description of the
books, how and when to use them but rarely on investigating the facts of a
case to determine what principles of law may apply. Fact investigation skills
may be somewhat limited or unexplored.
In practice, lawyers are expected to learn how to apply the law and solve a
real problem with a narrow focus to answer specific questions for a client.
Lawyers make heavy use of specialist practitioner texts for practical and
procedural issues in their research, which are rarely used in the academic
environment.Also, lawyers rely heavily on up-to-date primary sources, cases
and legislative material, always monitoring and tracking developments in
order to provide accurate advice.
Yet, many lawyers perceive legal research as a scholarly activity, unlike the
presentation to the jury, etc. and good at deposition may not necessarily be
equipped with good legal research skills. Similarly, someone who has good
interpersonal skills, such as acquiring clients, ability to interview, counsel
or negotiate, may not necessarily be good at legal research. Only a small
number of lawyers genuinely enjoy doing legal research. Most lawyers seem
to regard legal research as a chore to be delegated to pupils18
and a junior
colleague. The problem is that the delegators, usually the senior lawyers, in
escaping from the task of legal research may lose out on the new knowledge
and proper experience to do a good research, especially for a case involving
complex or novel legal issues.
Why did legal research get its reputation amongst practising lawyers as a
chore to be delegated to lower-level staff? Traditional legal research involves
searching through books such as legal digests, citators, legal encyclopaedias,
etc. in a law library, and it can be very tedious. It is easy to understand why
practising lawyers want to avoid such work.
17 Kinder, Petal, Taught but not Trained: Bridging the Gap in Legal Research, http://188.8.131.52/
18 Usual term used for fresh graduates undergoing training prior to being called to the Bar.
The Law Review 2008126
of strategies for the usage of those databases. Many practising lawyers are
not very comfortable sitting at a computer terminal searching for cases and
statutes for hours.Additionally, paying for online databases per search or per
hour can be exorbitant, up to RM1,000 in expenses for searches for one case
in well-known sophisticated legal databases. For these reasons, there exists
a culture amongst lawyers that legal research is a chore to be delegated to
the lower-paid staff such as pupils and young associates as it is not a proper
activity for highly-paid partners.
When legal research is routinely delegated to people with lower status, it is
a signal that senior lawyers regard legal research as relatively unimportant.
As a consequence, clients may suffer from less effective outcomes.19
Vicarious liability—is the librarian partly liable?
As one who has no qualifications whatsoever in librarianship, I have to say
that the debate as to what qualification(s) is/are necessary before one can use
the title “librarian” is most amusing. The essence of a “profession” is that
it has “agreed” and “accepted” entry requirements. Even the most brilliant
legal academic is not entitled, at least in this country, to the title of “Advocate
and Solicitor” if he/she has not passed the various exams necessary for that
title. And the notion that anyone who does a particular job in a professional
manner is ipso facto a “professional”, which some contributors on this topic
repaired, the job may have been done “professionally”, but no one that we
know would dream of calling a piano repairer a member of a “profession”.
A skilled tradesman no doubt is not a professional. It is also of the essence
that a “profession” has the power and/or duty to discipline members who
breach its ethical codes of conduct and expected standards of competence.
Who “disciplines” your piano-repairer if he ruins your piano? No one. You
simply sue him for negligence/breach of contract. Similarly, if someone
who believes herself or himself to have the skills of a librarian is entitled to
assume the title of a “professional”, what professional body has the required
disciplinary authority? For instance, when you do legal research and other
work of a type that is very similar to that done by many law librarians every
day, will you be regarded as a law librarian? Of course you are not.
What makes someone a professional? What makes an occupational group,
professionals? Is librarianship a real profession? Is there a contract between
librarians and society? Professions such as lawyers, engineers, doctors and
increasingly accountants have that contract codified in many countries. The
case of librarianship is not so clear. Certainly, the contract with society, if one
19 Standler, Ronald B, “Why do Legal Research” (2005), http://www.rbs2.com/legres.pdf.
127Legal Research Skills: How Competent are Our Lawyers?
is not, normally, a criminal matter but it could and has been handled in civil
proceedings. As to who may be categorised as a qualified professional law
librarian, this would be difficult to describe as there are no qualifications or
special training offered by tertiary institutions in Malaysia for someone who
is interested in such a profession. What is available is merely a general degree
in librarianship, and it is often the case in Malaysia that a law librarian’s
qualification is gained in the day-to-day running of a law library. Therefore,
there is no official accreditation in recognising a special qualification in law
librarianship. In terms of certification, the closest they have is the recognition
by the librarians association20
that one is a professional member, especially
for those who have earned a degree in librarianship.
Law firm librarians however, are the only employees of a law firm who
have a professional duty and assignment to assist both staff and lawyers in
finding legal information. They are responsible for bridging the gap between
the sources of information and those who need access to it. As information
managers, they are also responsible for managing information resources and
delivering them in good order to the lawyers. The core activities of librarians
are aimed at assisting research, creating current awareness and training in
of legal research, which entails information retrieval. They are expected to be
required to master legal bibliography, update legal resources, create indices
and understand research tools to help ease the research process.
Librarians can be regarded as part of the professional team and have a duty
to ensure the firm’s clients are served diligently on behalf of the lawyers.
Therefore, a firm librarian assisting in the research on a case would have
a duty to the firm, the lawyer and the client to ensure that a reasonable
standard of care is met. Hence, a librarian could probably be named in a
negligence suit as they may have contributed to a negligent treatment of a
case. In Union Insurance Malaysia Sdn Bhd v Chan You Young,21
Helmy JC, quoting English cases that lawyers should ask an expert to assist
them in legal research, said:
In both R v Reubens and R v Sabaroche, reference was made to R v Legal Aid
Board, ex parte Bruce  1 All ER 133;  1 WLR 1231 and a passage in
the judgment of the former Master of the Rolls at p 1237 where he said:
of all the law in their heads. They have to consider rules, regulations,
textbooks and authorities or get others to undertake research for them.
If the problem is difficult or outside the scope of their experience, they
20 Persatuan Pustakawan Malaysia (PPM)
21  3 MLJ 484.
The Law Review 2008128
will wish to discuss it with others who are more qualified (whether
professionally or otherwise) and in some circumstances may have to
remunerate those whom they consult.”
If the firm librarian has been held out and fitted as an expert (whether
professionally or otherwise) as implied in the case, then there is a higher
duty put upon the librarian to perform the reasonable standard of an expert
researcher. Lawyers have in the past been found negligent due to lack of
research efforts. This form of negligence can be extended to the firm librarian
who should be the most conversant in legal research methods. If a lawyer
has depended upon the librarian for his or her research expertise, then that
librarian has a duty of care to meet.
Although by virtue of vicarious liability the burden may rest on the firm, this
would not prevent the client from naming the librarian in a negligence suit.
While employers may be liable for torts committed by employees or agents
during the course of their employment, the librarian has been charged with
Failure to do so may cause a librarian to be held individually liable for his or
her negligence. There is a common law duty of care to the firm and its lawyers
which arises independent of the contract with the client and therefore the
under the Hedley Byrne v Heller Partners Ltd22
principle of a duty to exercise
care given the particular relationship, the assumption of responsibility and
the reliance upon that individual to perform with due diligence. Therefore,
an individual may not escape liability by hiding behind his or her employers’
professional obligations. However, the employer also ought to consider the
lack and inadequate privileges extended to their librarians as compared to
their lawyers in term of remuneration, status and professional protection
when holding them equally liable for professional negligence.
Law students and lawyers should regard legal research as a skill that requires
to give clients competent representation.23
The librarians themselves should
also appreciate the importance of legal research to the lawyers and offer their
to have adequate knowledge in legal research to enable them to teach and
22  2 All ER 575;  AC 465.
23 The expectation that lawyers perform adequate research on behalf of their clients is stated
in the American Bar Association (ABA) Model Rules of Professional Conduct. Rule 1.1
(“Competence”) states: “A lawyer shall provide competent representation to a client.
Competent representation requires the legal knowledge, skill, thoroughness, and preparation
reasonably necessary for the representation.”
129Legal Research Skills: How Competent are Our Lawyers?
train other researchers who may be lawyers, law students, librarians or the
as the experts in teaching legal research is for the librarians to get out there
and show what they can do. The recent statement issued by the American
Association of Law Libraries (AALL) on the value added to organisations
by law librarians, described librarians as teachers and trainers who can add
value to the organisations and communities to which they belong by teaching
others how to choose and use information resources and technology to gain
maximum benefit. Malaysian law librarians can play a significant role in legal
research training because of their long involvement in this area. They should
now be ready to take up the challenge in playing a greater role as teachers
and trainers in this prestigious profession.
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