It can be easy to overlook the value of citations, especially as a student. However, if understood properly, that little line of code will help you locate a case quickly, determine its potential value as precedent, and cite cases correctly both in essays and in court.
Here are five key points to help you out.
Starting with a little background, citations were borne out of law reporting. This was originally the only way practitioners were made aware of court decisions; law reporters would go to court, select those that set a precedent, write a headnote summarising the point of law and publish the reports in hard copy. It would have been unreliable to identify a case by party names – think of all the R v Rs or R v Smiths – so citations were assigned to identify a case by its report series, volume and page number.
The practice has since evolved, with law reports becoming synonymous with cases themselves. There are several law report series, both major and specialist, with weekly and monthly additions available both online and in hardcopy. Law reports are distributed by a range of publishers as a commercial enterprise. Cases are often reported in more than one series, leading to multiple citations for each case.
In 2001 neutral citations were introduced in the Court of Appeal and Administrative Courts by Practice Note  1 WLR 194, and extended to the High Court by Practice Direction  1 All ER 351. These facilitate the online publication of court decisions; with the development of the internet and digitisation of the courts, judgments can now be made available online, en masse, in their transcript form. The citation is attributed to a judgment by the court, consisting of the year, court abbreviation and the case number.
Be careful – neutral citations can cause confusion as they look very much like law report citations, so be aware of the difference between law reports and transcripts and ensure you can identify the format of each (see 4 for more).
Neutral citations enable you to search more accurately for case law. The increase in the availability of court judgments online also helps you access more relevant authorities. (To give you an idea, only around 2% of England and Wales cases are published in law reports (Oxford Lib Guides, 2017). While many cases have no legal significance, only around 20% of superior court judgments are reported, leading to many unreported precedents (View this blog post to find out more). Court judgments are available on sources such as JustisOne, BAILII and the Court Service websites.
Practice Direction: Citation of Authorities  1 WLR 780 requires you to cite the most authoritative law report when citing a case:
“6. Where a judgment is reported in the Official Law Reports (A.C., Q.B., Ch., Fam.) published by the Incorporated Council of Law Reporting for England and Wales, that report must be cited. These are the most authoritative reports; they contain a summary of the argument. Other series of reports and official transcripts of judgment may only be used when a case is not reported in the Official Law Reports.”
The hierarchy of law reports:
It’s worth noting, in recent times, we have seen a move away from this strict adherence to citing the most authoritative law report series. Neutral citations are becoming increasingly used, and there are clear advantages to this given their independence from any printed report series. For each jurisdiction, it is important to verify if any report series has been deemed as the official or authorised series, and comply with any Practice Directions issued by the Senior Courts in that jurisdiction.
To cite the most authoritative law report in court, you need to be able to establish where a case has been reported. This is where you need a citator: JustisOne, Westlaw Case Analysis, or Lexis Library’s Case Search provide you with a list of law reports in order of authority.
JustisOne shows you where a case has been reported and provides direct links to different services – so you don’t have to conduct multiple searches.
Reported series citations:
Corr v Ibc Vehicles Ltd  2 WLR 499
This means the year the law report was published is 2008, it was in volume 2, of the Weekly Law Reports, and starts on page 499.
Gissing v Gissing  2 CH 85
Gissing v Gissing was published in 1969, in volume 2, in the Law Reports (ICLR), and starts on page 85.
Useful for: establishing which law report it’s been published in, finding the correct case in hard copy on the shelf and citing in court.
R v Jogee  UKSC 8
Heard in 2016; in the Supreme Court; the 8th judgment handed down that year.
Lee v Whitehouse  EWCA Civ 375
Heard in 2009; in England and Wales Court Appeal Civil Division; the 375th case heard that year.
Useful for: establishing which court the case reached, accurately searching cases, and citing in court where the case is not published in a report.
Be careful: EW stands for England and Wales; UK for United Kingdom; UKHL is now Supreme Court: UKSC.
Be sure not to confuse court abbreviations with law report abbreviations such as the ICLR monthly law report abbreviations QB; Ch; Fam; AC.
Case citations in law reports, publication & essays: cases after 2001/02
Neutral citations now serve as the provider-neutral method of identifying a judgment. As such, when a case published in a law report series cites a judgment later than 2001, the neutral citation will appear in front of the more usual law report series citations: e.g. R v Rezvi  UKHL 1,  1 AC 1099.
You can find this rule in Practice Note  1 All ER 193 (introduced for the Court of Appeal and Administrative Courts, and extended to the High Court by Practice Direction  1 All ER 351):
“2.3 The neutral citation will be the official number attributed to the judgment by the court and must always be used on at least one occasion when the judgment is cited in a later judgment. Once the judgment is reported, the neutral citation will appear in front of the familiar citation from the law report series.”
For law students writing essays, OSCOLA (Oxford Standard for Citation of Legal Authorities), the standard method for referencing, also requires that for cases after 2001, you should cite the name, the neutral citation and then the law report citation, separated by a comma: Roberts v Gill & Co  UKSC 22,  1 AC 240
If there is no neutral citation, include the law report citation and indicate the court afterwards in brackets: Page v Smith  AC 155 (HL)
View the full OSCOLA guide here.
You said you love detail (at some point, having gone into law). Well here it is.
In law report citations, the year will have square or rounded brackets – this is important when you are looking for the hard copy law report on the bookshelf.
The reason for this is some law reports have more than one volume per year, others only publish one volume per year. For those which only publish one volume, each volume number is unique. For those publish more than one, they start again 1,2,3 each year, so the year is important to distinguish the reports.