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What Is a Legal Citation?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 16 October 2014
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A legal citation is a reference to a resource which informed the writing of a legal document or which provides information which readers may find useful. Just as academics include citations for their sources and supporting documents, members of the legal profession use citations to make their written materials stronger and to give due credit to sources. A legal citation be used to support or refute an argument, to provide the legal basis for an argument, and simply to indicate the source of a claim.

There is a specific format which must be followed when writing a legal citation. Numerous countries have their own legal citation style guides and law students are provided with guidance in their first year of school so that they can learn when to make citations and how to format them. Failure to follow the style guide can result in confusion and may irritate readers; in law school, it usually results in points off on a paper or other prepared document.

When preparing something like a legal opinion, a legal professional can cite laws, legal opinions, legal cases, regulations, statutes, academic legal discussions, and other documents. The citation includes a description of the document being cited, the area of the document relevant to the topic at hand, and the year of publication. The format this takes varies from nation to nation.

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However, a legal citation does not just tell the reader where the writer got information. It also provides data about the weight of the information with the use of legal citation signals. When a citation is provided with no signal, it indicates to the reader that the text directly states the point being supported. With the use of key words and phrases, the writer can indicate that the text suggests a point, provides useful background information, or refutes a point.

For example, when a legal citation uses “see generally,” it means that the source being cited has background information which people may find relevant. “E.G.” means that multiple sources make the same point and that listing them would be redundant, so the citation being made is an example. Numerous other signals are used. These help readers decide whether or not they would like to look up the cited material, and they are used to determine the weight of someone's argument. If the citations all provide indirect or analogous support, for example, it may be read as a sign that the proposition being put forward in the document is not very strong from a legal perspective.

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