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How CiteRight gets the Cites Right

Aaron Wenner
With the release of CiteRight 4.1, we made a seemingly minor change to our citation engine. We now include the court and jurisdiction in citations — but only when it’s appropriate to do so. This is a really big deal. We're so committed to helping our customers cite their sources accurately that we're willing to spend more than two years building a first-of-its kind Canadian database. Read on for the details on what it takes to add in some crucial (but complex) information in citations.
A really big deal

If our company is called CiteRight, we’d better get the cites right 

Until recently, our citations had a problem. They didn't include the court and jurisdiction at the end, when it's (sometimes) required.

Our customers are litigators, and litigators operate in a professional context where small details — things like commas and punctuation, formatting like bold and italics — can have serious impacts. Our first principle at CiteRight is that we sweat the details so that our customers don’t have to. We take this stuff really seriously: it’s crucial that our automations directly match our users’ expectations of what they would have otherwise done by hand. 

It was always possible for our users to modify those citations when necessary, but that was always a sub-optimal solution.

Helping our users means ensuring that they cite their sources impeccably. That’s why our company is called CiteRight after all. But for legal citations, getting those details right is a surprisingly deep problem. 

Why include the court and jurisdiction? 

Citing cases correctly in a written argument is important because the citation often contains clues to how persuasive the case is. 

When you’re preparing a written argument for a judge, you’ll include lots of references to the prior decisions that help your argument, as well as references to the prior decisions that don’t help your argument (along with reasoning on why they don’t apply in your circumstance). 

The court and jurisdiction are important supplementary pieces of information that get included in a citation that can help the reader assess how persuasive it is:

  • The court matters because, all things being equal, a higher court’s decision is more persuasive than a lower court’s. 
  • The jurisdiction matters because, all things being equal, a decision that emanates from the province where you’re submitting or adjudicating is more persuasive than one that doesn’t. 

So, clearly, you should always include the court and jurisdiction in a citation, right? 

Not quite. 

The rules

The McGill Guide says that you don’t need to spell out the court and/or jurisdiction if you can infer it from somewhere else in the citation. According to section 3.9 of the McGill Guide:

The jurisdiction and court [of a decision] should be indicated if there is no neutral citation (which indicates both jurisdiction and court level); and if this information is not evident from the title of the reporter.

Neutral reporters make life easy

Since 2000 or so, most Canadian legal decisions have been published using “neutral reporters” that conveniently encode the decision’s court and jurisdiction. For example, Dunsmuir v. New Brunswick, 2008 SCC 9 has a neutral reporter, “SCC,” which tells you that the decision is from the Supreme Court of Canada. 

Another example: by looking at the neutral reporter for Petaulassie v. Hamlet of Cape Dorset, 2012 NHRT 2, you can tell that the decision comes from the Nunavut Human Rights Tribunal. 

So … the court and jurisdiction isn’t something to worry about? 

Not so fast. There’s a lot of good and valuable case law from before 2000 that we cite all the time. 

But how well do you know your law reporters? 

When there isn’t a neutral reporter, it’s sometimes but not always possible to infer the court, or the jurisdiction, or both from the reporter — or sometimes not. Let’s look through some examples: 

Dobson (Litigation Guardian of) v Dobson, [1999] 2 SCR 753.

  • A reporter can reveal both the court and jurisdiction. SCR stands for Supreme Court Reports, so just by looking at the reporter (and knowing what the abbreviation stands for), you can tell that this decision comes from the Supreme Court of Canada — so there’s no need to include either the court or the jurisdiction.

O’Brien v Centre de location Simplex ltée (1993), 132 NBR (2d) 179 (CA)

  • A reporter can reveal the jurisdiction but not the court. NBR stands for New Brunswick Reports, a "semi-official" law reporter, similar to the Ontario Reports. Looking at the reporter, you can tell that the decision comes from some court in New Brunswick, but not which one. Since this decision happens to come from the New Brunswick Court of Appeal, you’d need to include its abbreviation (CA) in the citation. 

Boisjoli c Goebel (1981), [1982] CS 1 (Qc).

  • A reporter can reveal the court but not the jurisdiction. CS stands for Recueils de jurisprudence du Québec : Cour supérieure. Since the court is evident (and perhaps the province isn’t), you’d include the province at the tail of the citation. 

Taylor v Law Society of Prince Edward Island (1992), 97 DLR (4th) 427 (PEISC (AD))

  • A reporter can reveal neither the court nor the jurisdiction. DLR stands for Dominion Law Reports, a venerable Canadian reporter whose name doesn’t indicate where a decision comes from. Here, we need to include the fact that the decision was handed down by the Prince Edward Island Supreme Court, Appellate Division. 

Also there are abbreviations to worry about

You’ve determined that you need to include one or both of the jurisdiction and court in your citation. The work doesn’t end there. You still need to abbreviate them correctly. There are (of course!) different rules for abbreviating one or both of court and jurisdiction. Per rule 3.9 of the McGill Guide:

There is no space in an abbreviation consisting solely of upper case letters. Leave a space when an abbreviation consists of both upper case letters and lower case letters (e.g. BCCA; Ont Div Ct; NS Co Ct; Alta QB).

On the other hand, you may not be using the McGill Guide. The Quebec Court of Appeal has its own rule set, the Précis de la référence juridique de la Cour d’appel du Québec, which requires that the court be listed before the jurisdiction. 

And you also need to worry about whether to put periods in your abbreviations. 

Oh! And (of course!) the 7th edition of the McGill Guide made the unilateral call to remove all periods from abbreviations — though this rule isn’t followed consistently.  The Quebec Court of Appeal still calls for periods in abbreviations in its citation guide, as do other courts, including the BC Court of Appeal. And many individual litigators adopt their own idiosyncratic styles. It’s a free-for-all out there. 

Shouldn’t a robot be doing this? 

Do you see where I’m going with this? You probably want automatic legal citations. 

Now that you’re thinking about it, you’d probably also want the ability to toggle between different citation styles too — including in English and French, so that you could easily reuse your firm’s work in different context.  

You’d definitely want an automatic legal citation tool to format the citations the way you would expect (and not necessarily as prescribed by any single citation guide), because you’re a master of your domain and no rules can chain you down. 

And you’d naturally expect that any software for automatic citations should dynamically and contextually include the court and/or jurisdiction, because it’s required, and because that’s what you do right now with your human brain, clever human that you are. 

But the problem is that following the citation rules properly requires a massive amount of implicit knowledge. Lawyers spend years learning the rules (and then, as they move through the rungs of the profession, more years forgetting them once they become someone else’s problem). 

To build an automatic citation tool that replicates a human’s ability, you’d need:

  • A list of every jurisdiction in Canada (current and former), along with every variant of its abbreviation, in English and French, so that your tool could know how to include them properly. 
  • A list of every court that ever existed in Canada, ever, so that your tool could know how to name and abbreviate the court in English and French. 
  • A list of every legal reporter that ever existed in Canada, along with a note saying whether a court and/or jurisdiction is implied by the name of the reporter, so that your tool could know whether to include a court/jurisdiction when that reporter is used in a citation. 

To create this tool would require compiling and encoding an enormous amount of background knowledge. So that’s what we did. 

How we taught the robot to cite

It took us more than two years to compile the necessary background information to support our new citation engine. Here’s what we needed to assemble.

Gather all the jurisdictions

There are 10 provinces and 3 territories in Canada, so this list would seem simple enough. But (a) there’s also an implied “federal” jurisdiction, (which includes the Supreme Court of Canada, the Federal Court and Federal Court of Appeals, and the myriad other federal-level tribunals; and (b) there are also jurisdictions that no longer exist (Lower Canada, for example) that could theoretically be included in a citation. We needed to account for all possibilities. We needed to include abbreviations (with and without periods) for each of these jurisdictions, in both English and French. 

Oh! And (of course!) under the McGill Guide, the same province can be abbreviated in different ways  depending on the type of item being cited, so we needed to include abbreviations (in English and in French, naturally) for each of those possibilities. 

Our jurisdiction database

Gather all the courts

Things got trickier here. To make sure our users could accurately cite decisions from any Canadian court, both current and historical, we needed to compile a list of every Canadian court, ever, along with that court’s English and French names (where available), and their correct abbreviations (with and without periods). 

Finding that data wasn’t easy. A few publicly-available sources purport to list all of Canada’s current and historical courts. But even in those, we found errors and missing information. For example, the Ontario Superior Court of Justice has gone through several rounds of renaming and reorganization, but its earlier incarnations are erroneously labeled in CanLII’s database: the decision Re Haldimand-Norfolk Regional Health Unit and Ontario Nurses' Association et al. (1979), 27 OR (2d) 521 (H Ct J (Div Ct) was handed down from the Divisional Court of the Ontario High Court of Justice, but CanLII lists it as being from the Superior Court. 

Now that this information is in our database, we can be sure that we’re correctly citing and abbreviating these current and historical courts. 

Gather all the reporters

This was the trickiest and most time-consuming work we did. 

To our knowledge, there’s never been a comprehensive list of every single Canadian law reporter. We were inspired by the Free Law Project’s Reporters Database, which has built up a dataset of every US reporter. To build our Canadian reporters dataset, we started by compiling all the existing lists of reporters we could find, removing duplicates as we went. We then reviewed each reporter manually to make sure that the abbreviation was correct (with and without periods!) and added a note indicating whether the name of the reporter implied a jurisdiction and/or a court. 

Our team has reviewed hundreds of Canadian reporters, and the information we’ve compiled is crucial to ensuring that our citations are reliable and accurate. 


We cite because we care

Getting citations right is important. A citation is an elegant thing, conveying a deep level of detail with just a few typographical characters and conventions. The difference between a square bracket and curved bracket conveys meaning. The problem? What’s convenient and helpful to the reader comes at a cost to the writer. There sure are a lot of rules. 

We’ve done the hard work to make those rules automatic so that the objective remains intact without the cost to anyone. 

I’m incredibly proud of this new feature. It’s the result of literally years of work. It’s led to the creation of a database that, as far as we know, is unique in Canada’s history. 

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