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Where the ‘at’, where the ‘at’, where the ‘at’ at?

Prepositions are easily overlooked, and perhaps none more so than the humble ‘at’. It is a frequent interloper in legal citations, but there is little consistency to this two-letter word’s use. In the courts, we see some judges who use ‘at’ for every pinpoint, others who use it only in some situations (such as subsequent citations), and others who abstain altogether from ‘at’. Therefore, this post will set out a theory of when to use (and not use) ‘at’ in pinpoint citations.

Existing authority

First, let us examine the relevant authorities. OSCOLA is, sadly but as usual, inconsistent and silent on this; it uses in text ‘at’ to describe citations on occasion, but gives as the only example of using ‘at’ as the proper way to set out a citation as for Baker’s English Legal Manuscripts (bold added):1

Rex v J Wish Taylor of Cambridge (1721) Lincoln’s Inn MS Hill 60, p 24 (Baker ELM #2R183 at fiche A412)

There is no explanation or suggestion as to why microfiche of all things is uniquely deserving of ‘at’. The obvious conclusion is that there was not very much care given to this tiny point.

The Cambridge Redbook says nothing explicit on this, so once again we must work by implication. Consider this example copy on page 7 (bold added):2

The 2011 Expert Meeting on Complementarities between International Refugee Law, International Criminal Law, and International Human Rights Law: Summary Conclusions, Arusha, Tanzania, states at paragraph 45 that[…]

Here, we have a clear illustration of the utility of this preposition. Obviously, where a citation follows a verb (eg, ‘states’), the rules of grammar require some preposition between the verb and the paragraph number, since the paragraph number is clearly not the object of the verb. However, conversely, the problem is that there is very little rules that can be drawn from this in-sentence use, because it is a function of grammar and the choice of the author in the placement of the verb. Thus, the Redbook cannot tell us very much.

So, let us instead take a comparative journey. The New Zealand Law Style Guide favours a universal use of ‘at’, including in places where OSCOLA would use a common, giving citations such as ‘ [1966] NZLR 571 (CA) at 581’.3 This verbose approach adds needless characters to citations and is out of keeping anyway with the approach to keep our legal citations concise. The Canadian guide to uniform legal citation | Manuel canadien de la reference juridique, 8th edn,4 also prescribes a universal ‘at’ for jurisprudence, albeit it uses ‘at para’ rather than at ‘[15]’.5 The American Bluebook prescribes a split regime, by which ‘at’ is employed in long-form citations where a non-standard medium (for example, an unreported case or a slip opinion) is being cited, but a simple comma for reported cases followed by the page or paragraph numbers.6 In short-form citations, ‘at’ is used in conjunction with the reporter or volume number and case name (but without the initial page of the case), or following the abbreviated form for ibid.7 If this sounds confusing, that is because the Bluebook is a confusing mess (and even your prolix correspondent struggles to see how such a useful manual could ever be 560 pages). For that reason, we can avoid it.

The most elegant comparator is Australian Guide to Legal Citation (4th edn). The AGLC sets out a clear hierarchy of norms regarding the use of ‘at’. First, r 1.1.6 indicates that ‘at’ is not to be used in citations. One derogation from this rule is provided by r 1.4.6, which allows solely within footnotes the use of ‘at ’ where the citation has already been used within the footnote, as an aid to avoid repeating the citation (and reflecting that it would be inappropriate to use ‘ibid’ to refer back to a point within the same discursive footnote). This limited licit usage is illustrated by this example from the AGLC:

Sullivan v Moody (2001) 207 CLR 562. The Court acknowledged that finding a duty may ‘cut across other legal principles’: at 580 [53]; meaning that it was ‘a question about [the] coherence of the law’: at 581 [55].

Another derogation is provided with respect to judicial citations. Where a concurrence or dissent is identified, the AGLC allows for the use of ‘at’ to pinpoint agreement or disagreement.8 For example, ‘Brennan J agreeing at 4’. However, it is explicitly forbidden to use the format ‘Brennan J at 4’, without any agreement.

A proposal for England & Wales

The Australian example, supra, does highlight two important points. First, ‘at’ should be avoided except where it serves some use, since otherwise it merely does with more characters and less elegance the job of the separating comma in a citation. ’Second, the rule on using ‘at’ should be as clear as possible. However, the Australian approach, it is respectfully submitted, falls short in a few key places. First, it proposes that the ‘at’ be divorced until the end of the quotation, which undermines the very purpose of having an ‘at’ in the first place. Separated by a colon from the discussion, the citation is clear enough sans ‘at’. Second, the flow of the discussion is more naturally enhanced if the ‘at’ is placed next to the verb in question, which is in keeping with the ordinary and pleasing procedure for employing this potent preposition. Let us look at the AGLC example first given supra again, but with the position of the ‘at’ modified (in bold):

Sullivan v Moody (2001) 207 CLR 562. The Court acknowledged, at 580 [53], that finding a duty may ‘cut across other legal principles’; meaning that it was ‘a question about [the] coherence of the law’: 581 [55].

The at has been added next to the verb ‘acknowledged’, but removed for the last example. The result is a parenthetical that flows much better. This gives rise to the first of two exceptions to the general rule against ‘at’: where a citation immediately follows a verb. For example: ‘Blackacre famously distinguishes, at 552A, between two types of constructive trust.’

The second deficiency in the Australian approach is its use of ‘at’ with judges. It is difficult to see why ‘at’ should not be used with all judicial citations, given that the traditional comma format for a case name pinpoint does not apply. ‘Brennan J, 4, said’ is plainly wrong. ‘At’ makes logical sense here, since the judge says something at one point in the reported case. Thus, ‘at’ should be used for all citations to judges (including ‘the Court’, etc) but not as a pinpoint in case names.

This exercise in adding principle to our use of this preposition is a difficult one, because it requires detailed thinking over an apparently small matter. However, if an approach like the one proposed here can be adopted, we can add a coherent and sublime approach to making our legal documents all the better to read and the more beautiful upon the page. Consistency and principle, even in the smallest aspects, enhances style.


My sincere apologies to the estate of the late Mr Earl ‘DMX’ Simmons for my unforgiveable pun on a verse of his hip-hop song ‘Where the hood at?’ in the title.

  1. OSCOLA, p 22↩︎

  2. The Redbook doesn’t italicise the title of these summary conclusions, which is an odd decision with which your correspondent must respectfully disagree.↩︎

  3. New Zealand Law Style Guide, § 3.2.7(a)↩︎

  4. Regrettably your correspondent did not have access to the ninth edition, though it is doubtful this point has changed.↩︎

  5. r 3.6.1↩︎

  6. For example,Bluebook (20th edn), r 10, r 10.8.1↩︎

  7. ibid, r 10.9↩︎

  8. r 2.4.2↩︎