Duhaime's Law Dictionary

Neutral Citation Definition:

A legal citation unique to cases issued from a particular court with numbering assigned sequentially, and designed for electronic database and Internet cataloging retrieval.

Related Terms: Legal Citation, Law Report, Public Domain Citation

In the United States, some sources prefer the term public domain citation.

This following complete description of a neutral citation is from the Oxford University law library (known as Bodleian Library), circa 2011.

"Neutral citation is the name given to the official style for citing the transcripts of law cases issued directly by the courts. Electronic publishing had increased their availability, which had in turn increased their use in both forensic and academic settings. A reliable and secure way to cite them needed to be devised. Neutral citation was the solution. Neutral citation was introduced over 2001/2002. Within each calendar year, the shorthand writers ensure that each judgment for each court has a unique number, and also that each paragraph within the transcript is numbered sequentially. As the neutral citation is the official number attributed to the judgment by the court, even if the case is later reported in print, the neutral citation should be given at the head of alternative citations - at least for the first reference to the case."

A legal citation stated to be neutral because the citation identifies judgments independently of any series of reports, and cite only parties, year of judgment, court and case number.

The advent and relative simplicity of electronic publication on the Internet has encouraged many courts to publish their decision directly rather than the old method of relying on the selection and publication by privately-owned law report publishers.

The original concept of a neutral legal citation may have been expounded by John West, the founder of the American law report giant, Westlaw. In 1908, West was invited to speak before the newly-formed Association of American Law Libraries and in his remarks, put forward a controversial idea of having a numerically sequential judgment numbering system, with a prefix or suffix associated with the issuing court. He mused that such a unique legal citations would be far better than  legal citations which depended upon the commercial whim of private law reporters such as the company he himself had recently left, Westlaw of St. Paul.

In about 1999, Canadian courts began issuing their judgments assigning to each, as they rolled out of the court rooms, database-friendly legal citations, usually doing away entirely with the use of periods between the letters of the acronym which, in any event, are ignored by most electronic databases.

For example, in the case of the May, 2004 decision of the Supreme Court of British Columbia decision, Bjorge v Bjorge, the neutral citation is Bjorge v Bjorge 2004 BCSC 596; being the 596th decision retained for publication by the Supreme Court of British Columbia in the calendar year 2004.

House of Lords decisions have been assigned neutral citations since 2001 in this format (note the redundant use of square brackets1):

Majorstakes Limited v Curtis [2008] UKHL 10

Other example of neutral citations include the Supreme Court of Canada, for which the neutral citation is SCC, and:

  • TCC: Tax Court of Canada
  • CMAC: Court Martial Appeal Court
  • BCPC: Provincial Court of British Columbia
  • BCHRT: British Columbia Human Rights Tribunal
  • ONCA: Ontario Court of Appeal

That of the High Court of Australia is HCA.

In A Neutral Citation Standard for Case Law, the authors wrote:

"The neutral citation aims to permit the permanent identification of a judicial decision independently of its mode of publication, be it paper or electronic. It has no descriptive elements pertaining to the hierarchical level or to the internal structure of the institutions concerned....

"The most obvious advantage of this approach is that the court or tribunal assigns this citation at the very moment the decision is rendered. This citation is unique, complete, immediately available and permanent."


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