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Research Skills: Types of Legal Resources

A step-by-step approach to ensure that you possess the key skills required to find, retrieve and evaluate information on your research topic.

Primary Resources

Primary sources represent original material and the body of the law itself and related publications. Primary information sources for law are publications that emanate from the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government at national, provincial and local level. There are different kinds of primary sources, eg. green or white papers, bills, statutes or acts, proclamations, regulations, by-laws, unreported court cases, reported court cases, the reports of commissions, treaties, conventions, Hansard and so on. Statutory materials such as the Acts of Parliament are available in print and electronically and are published in the Government Gazette. Publishers such as LexisNexis Butterworths and Jutastat provide access to South African legislation in printed and electronic formats. 

Significant decisions of the courts, not necessarily cases which receive a lot of media attention, but ones that will assist in the interpretation of the law in similar cases, are selectively and commercially published in various sets of law reports on a weekly or monthly basis. The earliest South African law reports date back to 1828. Prior to 1947, cases were published for each of the High Courts in the Cape Colony, Natal, the Orange Free State and the Transvaal. Since 1947, the Provincial and Supreme Court law reports were gathered into one publication - the South African Law Reports. Major sets of South African law reports include the following

  • All South African Law Reports (Butterworths) (1828+) 
  • South African Law Reports (Juta) (1947+)
  • South African Criminal Law Reports (Juta) (1990+)
  • Constitutional Law Reports (Butterworths) (July 1994+)
  • Arbitration Law Reports (Butterworths) (1998+)
  • Labour Law Reports (Butterworths) (July 1994+)


Secondary Resources

Secondary sources of information are works that emanate from primary sources of information but provide commentary on those sources. These include reference works such as dictionaries and encyclopaedias, books, theses and dissertations, journal articles, loose-leaf publications, indexes and abstracts. Reference sources are publications that are used to find factual or specific information, eg. the meaning of words, phrases, names of places, etc., and these include materials such as dictionaries, encyclopaedias, directories, etc. Legal reference sources contain information that is specific to law and include publications such as Butterworths Forms and Precedents, the encyclopaedia of South African law known as the Law of South Africa (LAWSA), and legal dictionaries, e.g. RD Claassen's Dictionary of Legal Words and Phrases, etc. Books often provide a useful overview or in-depth examination of the relevant branch of law. Further information may be found in the footnotes of cases, books and articles, and in the bibliographies of books, articles, theses and dissertations, reports of commissions, and so on. Books will further refer the researcher to journal articles. 

The books housed in the Unisa Library may be located by searching the Unisa Library’s catalogue.

The Annual Survey of South African Law is a useful source of information as it lists the legal developments of each year. Other useful South African law journals include Acta Juridica, the South African Law Journal, the Tydskrif vir Hedendaagse Romeins-Hollandse Reg (THRHR), the Tydskrif vir die Suid-Afrikaanse Reg (TSAR), and De Jure, among others. Specialised legal fields such as labour law, commercial law and environmental law also have their own journals.