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On the superiority of bracketing dates in neutral legal citations

This is the briefest of notes upon a topic which I am sure has been exercising most of the legal community: the debate between retaining punctuation around (especially but not exclusively) years in neutral citations. The Canadian style, with which I am sure readers of this web-log will be intimately familiar, is (and, though I cannot claim to have any particular knowledge of the history of Canadian legal stylings, seems to be quite well-established) is to simply omit the traditional parentheses or square brackets around the year for neutral citations. For example, 2021 BCCA 465. (Obviously, the locus classicus for this style is to be found in the canonical Canadian Guide to Uniform Legal Citation | Manuel canadien de la référence juridique, § 3.1 et seq) This is in contrast to the storied, though by no means ancient, Commonwealth practice of bracketing years in square brackets (where there is no volume indexing of the report) or in parentheses (where there is). This applies to ‘traditional’ reports and neutral citations equally. For example,  [2021] EWCA Civ 7.  

The case against the brackets is fairly straightforward—they provide no additional information, given that neutral legal citations always use square brackets. The omission of brackets also makes clear which citations are neutral, as opposed to non-neutral. These are worthy accomplishments.

However, we must, first, recall that typography, including legal typography, is foremost an æsthetic endeavour. Typographic style thrives, often enough, in simplicity, but we must also consider the rhythm of the page, the harmony of the lines, the beat of the letters, and the contrapunto of capital and lowercase. Many lawyers would scoff at this definition, but the nobility of good typography lies in its ability to honour and enhance the dignity of its text. The authority and accessibility of the teachings of our juridical sages depends on how we structure and present them typographically. Our purpose is to exalt and promote the Law through style and presentation.

This point being made, we must now ask, do we see case law as a single unit, or as a disparate gathering of unrelated authorities. I am a partisan for the former. Citations should, I think, ideally be in footnotes, but if they must be in running text, they should be unobtrusive and immediately recognisable (and never underlined).  I think, ideally, foreign citations should be presented as far as possible in English format; so, for example, (1979) 436 US 455 rather than 436 US 455 (1979). Formatted strings, such as an ecli, are to be avoided in favour of references, to the greatest extent possible. Case citations should have a single look and style, a consistent manner of presentation.

(As a side note, if so many citations were not mixed in case (‘Fam’, for example), I would argue strongly for following Bringhurst’s dictum on presenting abbreviations (eg, ‘ewca’) in small capitals.  This is sadly unworkable, though, for the reason given.) 

Neutral citations are immensely useful for unreported cases, but I think of doubtful use for reported ones (particularly because for most courts, it is a requirement to also cite the iclr report where one exists). However, they do not form a lex specialis deserving of their own special treatment, as typographically demanded by royalty and deities in the days of old. To have two formats of citation is confusing, unnecessary, and distracts the eye from the familiar tempo of italicised case name and citation. I find the confusion created by Canadian style simplification greater than the advantage to the contrary.

However, I am aware that my opinion is probably in the (very small) minority, and welcome, as always, dissent!


I realise belatedly that this risks being misinterpreted as a criticism of a longstanding and traditional Scots way of writing case citations (eg, Brownlee v Robb 1907 SC 1302). That is not my intention. Where a longstanding practice is part of the expected rhythm of the page, and where most cases can be expected to have their canonical citation in a certain format, there is no need to object to naked dates. I would not for a second advocate changing the Scots style. Rather, my objection is taking a longstanding mode of citation and confusing it by creating a new rule which only applies to certain citations (ie, neutral ones).