How to Write a First-Class Case Note
Being able to write case-notes is crucial to your success studying law. As well as being a common form of assignment, they make very handy revision aids. Common law cases are often long-winded and dense, and sometimes it can be difficult to see the wood for the trees – let along remember the key parts! This post will provide you the ultimate guide to writing first-class case summaries using the FIRODA Case-Note Method.
The FIRODA Method
The FIRODA Method is an excellent way of structuring your case notes so that you summarise and remember all the key elements. Start by noting down the name of the case and the court which decided it. We’ll use Fagan v Metropolitan Police Commissioner as an example.
Give a brief overview of the key facts of the case. The key facts are those which are relevant to the outcome of the case – the facts which the judge actually took into account when reaching their legal conclusions. If a fact is not relevant to the outcome, you probably do not need to include it. In some cases there might be a relevant dispute over what the facts were: note this down too.
Any given case will involve deciding one or more points of law, or applying one or more legal principles to a particular set of facts. Work out what the court was actually being asked to do in the case, and summarise it.
For each issue you have identified, read the majority judgments of the court to determine the ratio decidendi. The ratio decidendi is the application of the legal rule which leads the court to reach the case’s outcome. It is distinguished from obiter dicta, which is everything else in the judgment.
Not sure whether a statement is the ratio decidendi or obiter dicta? There is no clear cut method for deciding, unfortunately, but here is a useful guide. Ask yourself: if the judge had not made this finding of fact, or used this particular legal principle, would they have reached the particular conclusion they did? If it would make no difference to the outcome, then you are probably looking at obiter dicta. Otherwise, it is probably ratio decidendi.
For example, it is common for judges to decide a case based on a particular legal principle or finding of fact, but then say ‘if I am wrong’ or ‘I would reach the same conclusion if…’ and then consider how the case would be decided if the facts or legal principles were different. The first part of such a judgment is usually the ratio decidendi, and everything afterwards is usually obiter.
In some cases, there may not be a unified ratio decidendi. For example, in Re Baden (No 2)  EWCA Civ 10, the three judges all agreed on what the outcome of the case should be. However, they all reached their conclusions using completely different reasoning. If you are writing a note on a case where the majority judges disagree, explain the ratio decidendi of each judge’s decision. Compare and contrast them.
O: Obiter Dicta
While most of the obiter dicta in a case can safely be forgotten by the average law student, sometimes judges say interesting things obiter that can influence how future cases are decided. For example, the judge might:
- Speculate on how the law might apply to a novel set of facts;
- Discuss how future courts ought to decide related areas of law;
- Disapprove of a past case, but not overrule it;
- Approve of a past case.
If you think the judge has said anything in the obiter dicta which gives you insight into the law beyond the case, note it down in this section.
In some cases, a judge dissents from the majority of the court and disagrees with the outcome. Often these dissents are ignored by the legal community, but sometimes they become a powerful argument that the case was wrongly decided. If you are reading a case with a dissenting judge, note down the points on which they disagree with the majority, and why. Consider whose argument you think is stronger.
Finally, assess and evaluate the decision. It may help you to read academic commentary on the case in law journals or case-books. You should be looking to answer questions such as:
- How does it fit with previous and subsequently decided cases in the same area?
- What policy, principle and social factors might have influenced how the judges decided the case?
- Do you agree with how the law was decided and applied to the facts? If not, how would you have decided this case?
With that, you will have a solid case-note. This will not only help you get top marks in your assignments, but will also make it much easier to remember principles of law for your exams. Got any personal tips for writing case notes? Leave us a message in the comments!