I suggest there are three main reasons why legal professionals and the general public alike read case law, and I offer 2011’s three most read CanLII cases in support of my suggestion.
When it comes to judicial decisions, the legal profession measures influence by how many times a case has been cited by other courts. By that measure, the influence of Dunsmuir v. New Brunswick, 2008 SCC 9, is incontrovertible. It has been cited by over 4400 other cases contained within CanLII’s case collections – the most of any case. Over the first 7 months of 2011, CanLII users accessed Dunsmuir 5237 times, making it the third most consulted case of the year to date.
What about cases that are widely read and debated but rarely if ever cited by other courts? The second most consulted case was accessed 5249 times during the same period, but has thus far only been cited twice by other courts. The case, Bedford v. Canada, 2010 ONSC 4264, which is now working its way through the appeal process, found Criminal Code provisions addressing facets of prostitution to be in conflict with the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The high level of interest has a lot to do with its anticipated impact on the legal and public landscape.
Sometimes cases gain notoriety for elements having nothing to do with establishing precedent or influencing public policy. Such is the situation surrounding 2011’s most accessed case. This case has an astonishing consultation total of 16 898 (actually, 26 728, if we include December 2010, which we might as well in light of the fact the decision was only published on November 29, 2010). If the consultations were spread evenly from publication to the end of July, the case would have been continuously and repeatedly accessed every 13 minutes for 8 months – with no breaks for evenings, week-ends, or holidays.
What made Bruni v. Bruni, 2010 ONSC 6568, such a popular read? Quite simply, style and storytelling, the appropriateness of which (in general) was the subject of a recent Toronto Star article on judicial writing.
These three cases are typical of the primary reasons why we read case law: 1) to know and reference the law when seeking to advance our interest; 2) to understand and participate in public policy debates; and 3) because case law can be an unparalleled source of entertainment. There’s a reason, after all, that lawyers and legal matters figure so prominently in literature, pop culture and the arts in general.