Courts should assign ‘Neutral Citations’ to cases: Heres Why

  • Abhishek Choudhary and Rajashree Kanungo
  • 10:39 AM, 13 Jul 2021

Read Time: 12 minutes

Neutral citation is a form of citation where courts assign a unique sequential number to each of their decisions. The objective is to enable people to identify cases and text in them by reference to a single, unvarying reference, no matter the medium of publication. The sequence corresponds to the order in which courts release decisions throughout the calendar year.

Since the late 1990s, courts in England and Wales, Canada, New Zealand and Australia have adopted neutral citation.

Case law citation relies essentially on the reference to judicial decisions in paper format. Until recently, this way of doing things, although imperfect, did not cause any real problems. However, the recent appearance of digital media has revealed the limitations of the traditional approach as it creates new needs.

Nowadays court decisions are becoming publicly available in a few hours without bearing an official reference. The decisions become accessible only when they are published on paper many weeks, or perhaps months after they are released. Furthermore, some decisions are never published in law reports and will never have an official reference, even though they may be cited repeatedly. Since there is no common standard, new methods of citation must be introduced in order to serve the electronic publication world.

The introduction of computers has considerably changed this picture. The courts now take charge of their own decisions. Many courts even publish directly on the Internet. Nevertheless, if we take into account traditional citation methods, the Indian judiciary does not have a citation method that would permit it to name, in an official and permanent way, to decisions that are published in this way.

The availability of a unique, permanent citation for judicial decisions at the same time as courts make them publicly accessible would greatly simplify the development of electronic research tools. In fact, this addition to the traditional mode of citation becomes crucial as electronic media are becoming increasingly important as core research sources for jurists. It is increasingly common to find Indian decisions on the Internet, for example, a few weeks or even months before they can be obtained in a printed collection of case law. During this interval, the publishers of research tools do not have access to a definitive mode of citation. As the weight of electronic media continues to grow, it is important, and in the best interests of the Indian legal community and the general public, to have a citation method that will reflect this development.

The traditional citation method for case law derives from the use of various printed collections. These collections have acquired great prestige throughout the years and have served the Indian legal community quite well. However, from an author’s point of view, it is convenient to cite a legal reference without having to first make sure - or presume - that the reader will have access to the same report. From the reader’s point of view, a neutral citation will permit him or her to access a specific reference without necessarily having to turn to the same document that the author used.

Currently in India each publisher follows its unique citation for published case laws. This has resulted in over 300 different types of citations. This is primarily due to non -availability of Neutral Citations as given by Courts in India. This is creating problems as different lawyers/Courts accept different citations.

To overcome this issue, we recommend Courts assign neutral Citation.

The basic components of neutral citation are: 

  • Name of the Parties. 
  • The year of publication of the judgment. 
  • A unique abbreviation as a court identifier. 
  • A sequential judgment number issued by the particular court. 
  • A pinpoint paragraph reference.

(The parties) [the year of the decision] (the Court abbreviation) (the sequential number of the judgment) (para number).

It is to be noted that all paragraphs should be numbered sequentially commencing with the initial paragraph in the published judgment. 

A v B [2006] SC 166 [9]

  • A and B are the parties involved 
  • [2006] is the date of the judgment 
  • SCI is the court in which the case was heard; in this case, the Supreme Court of India 
  • 166 is the case number 
  • [9] refers to paragraph number 9. 

The advantages of neutral citation are:

For Courts

  • Promotes judicial independence by creating a public method of citing judicial decisions; 
  • Makes it easier for courts to publish on the Web. 

For judicial administration

  • Creates an official citation for recent or unpublished decisions; 
  • Simplifies the implementation of internal or public information systems; 
  • Simplifies and enables the management and the rationalization of law libraries. 

For the legal community 

  • Facilitates reference to recent decisions; 
  • Increases freedom of choice in the selection of research tools; 
  • Promises to increase the availability of high quality electronic reference systems; 
  • Fosters the opening of the market, heightens competition and so contributes to controlling legal costs. 

For the legal publisher 

  • Permits the integration of multiple publications; 
  • Simplifies the management of collections by rationalizing the production and identification of case law; 
  • Favours the immediate publication of case law; 
  • Promotes the development of electronic tools while offering an official method of referencing unpublished decisions. 

Cases may subsequently be reported in a printed series of law reports, but the neutral citation will always remain at the front of the list of authorities.

For example: 

A v B [2006] SC 166 [9]; 2006/Manu/SC/0245; 2006AIR453 (SC)…etc.

If a neutral citation is available, it must be cited first, before including print citation to a reporter. 

Adoption of the foregoing recommended standard approach will greatly enhance the functionality of on-line electronic systems.

Abhishek Choudhary is Advocate, Supreme Court of India; Academic Author; Gold medalist in B.Sc. LL.B (Hons.)

Rajashree Kanungo is Co-Founder, Legis Orbis; Academic Author; Gold medalist in B.B.A. LL.B (Hons.) and in LL.M