January 1988

Canadian Law Information Council


Executive Summary

In a number of instances, the retrieval of case law can be a time-consuming and frustrating process owning to the manner in which styles-of-cause are applied to cases, or because of the haphazard manner in which case law is published throughout Canada. The increasing use of computer-assisted legal research will make it easier to locate and track any and every decision across the country but only if an appropriate numbering system is implemented which describes each decision in a unique fashion and provided that the system is easy to read and understand.

The proposed CLIC/CBA decision numbering system as described in this document would be implemented throughout Canada and would provide for a unique alphanumeric number to be assigned to each decision by the registrar of the court in which a decision is rendered. The number would remain the same throughout the "life" of a decision (with certain additions in the case of additional decisions rendered in the same matter and appeals) and would become its primary locator number within case law reports, summary and digest services, and online retrieval systems.

The proposal provides for five basic elements of any decision number :

(a) a two-digit number representing the year in which the decision was rendered;

(b) a two-letter element representing the jurisdiction in which the decision was rendered;

(c) a two-digit number representing the location of the court registry office;

(d) a single letter representing the particular level of court rendering the decision; and

(e) a multi-digit serial number representing the decision number in that court registry.

Additional alphanumeric elements will designate the court to which an appeal is taken and the serial decision number assigned to the appeal decision.

For example, the following number:


would indicate a decision which was number 34012 rendered in the Court of Queen's Bench, Regina Registry office, in the Province of Saskatchewan, in 1986. In the event that the decision is appealed to the Saskatchewan Court of Appeal (as number 10222 in that court), the number would read:


The alphanumeric system will be easy to read and remember and the separation of numbers from letters will avoid confusion and the transposition of numbers. The increasing specificity of the number from left to right will assist legal research, whether it is performed manually or by computer.

The Canadian Law Information Council in conjunction with the Canadian Bar Association believes that there are significant advantages to the introduction of this system throughout Canada and urges its adoption.



I. Introduction

The Canadian Law Information Council, in its 1981 study entitled, "A Model Judgement Handling System for Canadian Courts", identified a number of critical factors supporting the development and implementation of a unique numbering system for judgments.

While collecting data for our study on duplication among law reports, we discovered that style-of-cause was a nearly impossible method of finding a reported decision… The names and the order of presentation of the parties varied a great deal in each law report, which was particularly serious in those with indexes which do not provide cross-references. The problem is most obvious when one party is the Crown which may be variously styled as : Her Majesty the Queen, The Queen, The Queen in right of the Province of..., The Province of..., The Attorney General of, Regina, etc. As the reader may be well aware, different headnotes for the same case are often not reliable guides either; one can scarcely tell that the same case is being described. A complicated case involving many court appearances can be very difficult to sort out in different law reports.

The docket number is frequently used to reliably identify a case and is very useful for so doing because it is not susceptible to variation. Publishers of law reports, encyclopedias and digests should be encouraged to include numbers in their works. When computers search large amounts of case law covering a number of years for a specific decision, the weaknesses of searching by style-of-cause are even more serious. If a single typographical error occurs in the names, accurate retrieval is impossible. Anyone who has searched any index whether manually or by computer knows the difficulty of finding specific cases where the parties are named Macdonald, MacKay, etc. Searching for cases by number or at least verifying their identity by number would be an unquestionable advantage but for this to be possible each number must be unique - in its own jurisdiction and in the country.

The difficulties associated with locating decisions by styles-of-cause noted in this 1981 study have been addressed, in large measure, owing to the recent implementation by Canadian legal publishers of CLIC's Standards for Case Identification which will result in a greater degree of uniformity in case names. (See Appendix "A".)

However, a numbering system remains a desired objective for a variety of reasons. In the 1984 CLIC Occasional Paper, Standards for Headnoting: Case Identification, Mary Helleiner identified one of the primary advantages for the adoption of a unique numbering: to facilitate legal research.

The place where a numbering system would be invaluable, in my view, is in locating appeals when only the trial decision is known. Again, this presupposes a change in style of cause from trial to appeal, which this report is trying to eliminate. Even where styles of cause do not change, a numbering system would be useful if the number of the trial could be adjusted after an appeal (or supplementary or other related decision) were received. In this way a searcher would be alerted to the existence of an appeal decision, as well as given an easy way to find it.

Another benefit which would be derived from the introduction of a numbering system centres on the use of computers for online retrieval of legal information. Where uncertainly exists as to the names or the spelling of names of the parties involved in an action, a number would be invaluable as an alternative search feature. A decision number could also serve the function of verifying that the desired decision had been retrieved and that all related decisions in the same matter had been identified.

For legal publishers, the introduction of a unique numbering system for decisions will be of great assistance in the management of decisions received from the courts owing to the vagaries of the differing case file numbering systems in Canadian jurisdictions. (Please refer to Appendix "B".)


II. Historical Summary

In January 1985, the Standing Committee on Law, Science and Technology of the Canadian Bar Association prepared a proposal for the consideration of the federal, provincial and territorial Attorneys-General, entitled, "A Unique Case Identifier Numbering System for Canada". This proposal supported the implementation of a unique numbering scheme which would supplant the differing case file numbering systems in existence throughout Canadian registry offices.

In November, 1985, the Law Reporting Committee of the Canadian Law Information Council met with a Canadian Bar Association representative to discuss the proposed case numbering system. Owing to the recent automation of case file numbering systems in some court registries, it was determined that it was too costly to require the adoption of a case file numbering system that would necessitate major changes in automated court registry systems.

Following a discussion of the judgment numbering system which operates alongside a case numbering system in the Montreal Registry Office, it was decided that CLIC, in conjunction with the Canadian Bar Association, should promote the implementation of a similar numbering system for all Canadian court registry offices.

This particular system would have the virtue of allowing court registrars to adopt a decision numbering system which could operate simultaneously with their present case file numbering systems.

The detailed workings of a unique decision numbering system were determined at a recent meeting of CLIC's Law Reporting Committee and in many respects bear marked similarities to the earlier case numbering system promoted by the Canadian Bar Association.

The CLIC/CBA Decision Numbering System incorporates the five following elements :

- Year Designation

- Jurisdiction of Court

- Court Registry Identifier

- Level of Court

- Serial Decision Number (with allowances for supplementary or other related decisions rendered in the same matter)

This system has the added virtue of identifying the differing decisions rendered in the same matter and tracking decisions as they travel through different court levels by the addition of added variables.



86 – SK – 23 – Q – 49494
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Serial Decision Number

Court Level Designation

Court Registry Identifier

Jurisdictional Designation

Year designation

III. The composition of the CLIC/CBA Decision Numbering System


The first element of the decision number would be two digits representing the year in which the decision was rendered.

Example: 86

The CLIC Law Reporting Committee was of the view that two digits were sufficient to distinguish a particular judgement, given the extremely remote possibility of two decisions bearing identical names and numbers, and being decided one hundred years apart.


A two letter code identifying the jurisdiction in which the decision was rendered initially would be applied after the year designation. The following codes would be applied to each respective jurisdiction.















The jurisdiction designation has been placed in the second position because, apart from the year, it is the next broadest category for distinguishing between decisions.


Following the jurisdiction identifier, a two-digit number would be assigned to identify the court registry. Each registry would be assigned a two-digit identification number.


A single letter identifying the level of court rendering the decision would comprise the fourth element of the decision number. Each court level would be assigned one of the following identifiers :

A = Court of Appeal

B = Labour Court

C = Country Court

D = District Court

E = Federal Court of Canada
        Trial Division

F = Federal Court of Canada
        Appeal Division

G = Surrogate Court

H = High Court of Justice

I = Tax Court of Canada

J = Provincial
        Administrative Tribunals

K = Federal Administrative

M = Municipal Court

N = Divisional Court

P = Provincial Court

Q = Queen's Bench

S = Supreme Court
        (Superior Court in Quebec)

T = Territorial Court

U = Family Court
        (or Unified Family Court)

V = Magistrate's Court

W = Court Martial Appeal Court

X = Court of the Sessions
        of the Peace

Y = Youth Court

Z = Supreme Court of Canada


A single letter to indicate court level, when coupled with the second element (Jurisdictional Designation) and the third element (Court Registry Designation) will provide a desirable level of uniqueness.


The next five digits would represent the unique serial decision number identifier. This number would be assigned in numerical sequence by each originating court registry. It is proposed that this number would begin over again at the start of each year. Supplementary decisions relating to the same matter would be identified by the addition of a decimal point and a number after the decimal beginning with the number one.



86 – SK – 23 – Q – 12345.1
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Supplementary Decision Number
( relating to same matter)

Serial Decision Number

Court Level Designation

Court Registry Identifier

Jurisdictional Designation

Year designation



When a decision is appealed, the original root decision number is retained but the Appeal Court adds another letter representing the level, and another five digits (or more, for additional decisions rendered in the same matter) representing the serial decision number.



86 – AB – 39 – S – 67891 –A-56988
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Root Number

Serial Decision Number

Court of Appeal

Serial Decision Number of
First Decision

Court Level Designation

Court Registry Identifier

Jurisdictional Designation

Year designation

In this example, if the decision was further appealed to the Supreme Court of Canada, the designation, A-56988, would be dropped to be replaced by the designation "Z" representing the Supreme Court of Canada and five digits representing the new serial decision number.

Example: 86-AB-39-Q-67891-Z-67944

The rationale for replacing the jurisdiction and decision number of the first level of appeal is that the root decision number representing the first five elements provides the requisite degree of uniqueness and hence the sixth and seventh elements do not require further refinement. When a search is conducted utilizing the root decision number, all decisions bearing this number will be located.


The Canadian Law Information Council and the Canadian Bar Association are of the view that significant benefits would be derived from the implementation of the proposed CLIC/CBA Decision Numbering System.

In addition to simplifying the procedures involved in locating and tracking decisions, the CLIC/CBA Decision Numbering System provides a simple mechanism for determining whether a case has been appealed and in identifying additional decisions pertaining to the same matter.

The use of increasingly specific designations from left to right in each decision number will allow computer searches to isolate particular elements by time, jurisdiction or court level. Users will have the added advantage of searching by the root number to determine whether supplementary decisions have been rendered in the same matter and if a decision has been appealed.

Moreover, users will gain rapid familiarity with the elements composing the CLIC/CBA Decision Numbering System in much the same fashion as consumers have become accustomed to Product Identification Codes.

In conjunction with the recent implementation of CLIC's Standards for Case Identification by Canadian legal publishers, the reliability and ease of performing legal research will be greatly enhanced.


G.H., June 15, 1998