Even today a very small percentage of cases are reported within a law report series (either printed or online), only about 2%, due to the sheer number of cases being heard across England and Wales. Those that are are likely to be reported are usually cases of legal importance. Since the growth of electronic sources however, there have been unreported transcripts available on all the major legal databases but these consist of the judgment only.
In 1865 the Incorporated Council of Law Reporting was established to aid uniform reporting using a strict criteria and these are still the most authoritative law reports series. Since 1865 other commercial law reports have been established, some such as the All England Reports cover all important cases but others are more subject specialist reports. The publishers of these series decide which cases are to be reported.
Brief history of law reporting in England and Wales
Prior to 1865 case law had been reported by the barristers within court and the reports were named after the people who wrote them and these were known as the nominate reports. The older nominate reports were then reprinted in a series called The English Reports to contain the ‘law’ in one series.
The English Reports can be found at Cw UK 120 E50 or they are available on Westlaw Edge UK, LexisLibrary and HeinOnline (to holders of an Oxford SSO) or on Comlii which is a free resource. The All England Reports Reprint series which has a selection of nominate reports can be found at Cw UK 120 A10 and on Lexis Library. If you have an older case which is not reprinted in one of these series then you can check on the catalogue to see if it is a series which is held in its original form. There is also a neat table showing which nominate reports are reprinted in which English Reports volume - it is produced by Lancaster University.
The UK is a common law country and as such judgments and case law are particularly important as the doctrine of precedent applies. This means that the judgment of each case can bind all subsequent cases depending on the seniority of the court (the court system has a hierarchical structure.). As such case law becomes part of the law by either setting legal precedents where there is no legislation or interpreting legislation.
In England and Wales the lowest courts are the magistrates and county and crown courts. Following on from this there is the High Court (which has many divisions depending on the subject) and then the Court of Appeal (both Civil and Criminal) followed by the highest court in the country the Supreme Court (formally the House of Lords) (pictured above).
If you are looking for cases on one of the databases then you can use the party name to search but if you are looking for cases in hard copy or the party names are common then you will need to use the law report 'citation' please see the tab 'case citations' for a break down of how to use these to find your case.
Law reports in the Bodleian Law Library are on the main floor and start at CW UK 100 and in alphabetical order by title.
See below for the major case law databases in the UK
As well as courts there are a number of tribunals within England and Wales and these form part of the civil justice system. There are a large number of these throughout the country and some extend to Scotland and Northern Ireland. The subjects coverage is very wide from employment to land. They are governed by different authorities depending on the tribunal. Some are governed by local authorities, some by different government departments and others by the Tribunal Service. Tribunals often consist of a panel of legally qualified members who decide on individual cases. Their power is limited in comparison to courts, however they can issue fines, order compensation, or impose penalties. Quite often the decisions of the tribunals are not reported in a series of law reports but you may be able to find them online through the website of the tribunal itself or there is an impressive collection on Bailii.org.