Neutral Citation: A Change That Demands Attention

Updated: Jul 30, 2020

Necessity is the mother of all innovation. Through this work the author has endeavored to throw light into the much needed requirements of having a prescribed standard rule for neutrality in the citation format. The fundamental idea is to facilitate the readers and researchers to easily locate and procure relevant resources from a reliable source without making any reference to a printed reporter.

Neutral Citation: A Brief Overview

The traditional citation methodology for case laws and precedents in India vastly depends upon the format followed by the reporters publishing the very piece of judicial pronouncement delivered by the Courts, Tribunals or other Judicial or Quasi-judicial bodies. However, with the advancement of public legal information that led to the mushrooming growth of the publishing industries, it has become sine qua non to develop a policy for public legal information that facilitates a method of citing decisions of Courts and Tribunals that is prima facie independent of any particular publisher or for that sake any particular medium of publication.

This method of citing judicial decisions, often described as ‘medium neutral’ or ‘vendor neutral’ system of citation is termed as ‘neutral citation’, which, unlike the traditional citations that are conferred by publishers reporting the decision, are designated by the Court or Tribunal making such decisions. Neutral citation is, therefore, a form of citation where Courts assign a unique sequential number to each of their decisions, which corresponds to the order in which they are released throughout a calendar year, with each such sequence starting afresh, every year.

A neutral citation has generally three basic elements, Firstly, the style of cause, Secondly, the core of the citation with the year, the standard abbreviation of the name of the Court that issued it and the ordinal number i.e., an authoritative unique decision number allocated by the Judicial body itself, (preferably with the number series recommencing each calendar year) Lastly, some optional elements which are deemed to be relevant in order to increase the readability and precision of the citation, such as designation of paragraphs and notes.

For example, a judicial decision of Court of Appeal could be cited as follows:

Smith v. Leblanc, 1998 BCCA 21

In contrary to the traditional citation that identifies a decision by reference to the medium that publishes it, viz., an online legal database or series of law reports, the neutral citation is medium neutral, that is to say, no matter the medium in which the decision has been published, its uniqueness remains unfettered, as because together with the date of its pronouncement, followed by an abbreviated form of the Court name that pronounces it, the decision’s number remains invariable. This technique therefore guarantees the availability of the neutral citation for all other subsequent treatment and usage, as because it favors the immediate publication of case laws, thereby simplifying the management of collections of judicial decisions by rationalizing the production and identification of case laws. Nevertheless, it would allow the writers to cite judicial precedents without making assumptions about the availability of any particular publications to their readers. Additionally, the readers would be able to find a particular decision cited in any Court reports they are dealing with.

The primary objective of the neutral citation system, inter alia, is to create an infrastructure that can afford permanent identification of judicial decisions independently of its mode of publication, be it print or electronic. Besides, the neutral citation system also aims at developing a consistent citation mechanism for both print and electronic documents, thereby promoting the development of a totally new electronic reference tool. This system of citing decisions, therefore, makes every citation unique, complete, permanent and immediately available soon after its pronouncement. The system becomes handy in case of decisions that are never published in any law reports, print or electronic and therefore they do not have an official reference, notwithstanding the fact that they may have been cited repeatedly.

History & Origin of Neutral Citation System

Using neutral citation as a medium to identify scripts is not a new practice and is as such an ancient convention that dates back to period of writers such as Herodotus, Caesar, and Thucydides, when scrolls were used to record their works.[1] Biblical references (for example, Genesis 25:19) and certain forms of literary citation (for example, Macbeth 5.3.274-279) are also medium neutral.[2]

Since the late 1990s, Courts in England and Wales, Canada, New Zealand and Australia have adopted the neutral citation system.

Records stipulate that the Supreme Court of Canada was the first ever Canadian Judicial body to adopt this practice. The American Bar Association, in 1996, approved a resolution recommending Courts to adopt a uniform system of citation for printed and electronically published case reports. This created a citation system which is simple, unique and readily available.[3]

Since 2001, United Kingdom has adopted the concept of issuing neutral citations to judgments passed by several Courts. Such judgments with neutral citations are freely available on the British and Irish Legal Information Institute website ( The United Kingdom Court of Appeal has directed that a decision’s neutral citation must be used at least on one occasion when the decision is cited in a later case. The neutral citation must precede any other citation.[4]

The Courts and Tribunals in Australia have also adopted a neutral citation system for case laws. It focuses on a naming system that does not depend on the publication of the case by a particular law reporter.

Advantages of Adopting the Neutral Citation System

The advantages of neutral citation are:

For Courts

  • Promotes judicial independence by creating a public method of citing judicial decisions;

  • Makes it easier for Courts to publish on the Web.

For Judicial Administration

  • Creates an official citation for recent or unpublished decisions;

  • Simplifies the implementation of internal or public information systems;

  • Simplifies and enables the management and the rationalization of law libraries.

For the Legal Community

  • Facilitates reference to recent decisions;

  • Increases freedom of choice in the selection of research tools;

  • Promises to increase the availability of high quality electronic reference systems;

  • Fosters the opening of markets, heightens competition and so contributes to controlling legal costs.

For the Legal Publisher

  • Permits the integration of multiple publications;

  • Simplifies the management of collections by rationalizing the production and identification of case law;

  • Favors the immediate publication of case law;

  • Promotes the development of electronic tools while offering an official method of referencing unpublished decisions.

Cases may subsequently be reported in a printed series of law reports, but the neutral citation will always remain at the beginning of the list of authorities.

For example: A v. B [2006] SC 166 [9]; 2006/Manu/SC/0245; 2006AIR453 (SC) etc.,

If a neutral citation is available, it must be cited first, before including a print citation to a reporter. Adoption of the recommended approach will greatly enhance the functionality of online electronic systems.

Need of Developing a New Citation System

  • Growing Demands of the Judicial Machinery

Case law citation relies essentially on the reference to judicial decisions in a paper format. Until recently, this way of doing things, although imperfect, did not cause any real problems. However, the recent appearance of digital media has revealed the limitations of the traditional approach as it creates new needs.

With the introduction of electronic media in the judicial functioning, it becomes ipso facto mandatory to call for reforms in the existing citation standards to meet new needs of the Courts. This can only be facilitated by expediting the process of making available judicial decisions in public domain. The availability of a unique, reliable, authoritative, accessible, expedite and permanent citation for cases would greatly simplify the development of electronic research tools that can answer all growing demands of the judicial machinery with the increasing importance of electronic media. As the weight of electronic media continues to grow every single day, it has become utmost important to have a citation method that would reflect this development.

  • User Friendly Citation System

From the user point of view also, it is important, and in the best interests of the Indian legal fraternity and the general public at large, to develop a citation standard, that will permit a user to access a specific reference without searching for the same documents or the resources that the author has used. It is more convenient to cite a legal reference without first making sure or without first making a reasonable presumption that the readers will have access to the same resource, be it print or electronic.

Howsoever, there are genuine concerns about purely online legal information. The big sticking points seem to be officialness, authenticity, preservation and citeability, but the neutral citation system, if developed properly with utmost caution and care, has the potential to rule out every hypothetical issue that questions the existence of online-only legal information.

  • Guarantee a Long Term Opening Up of the Indian Market for Legal Information

With the mushrooming growth of publishing houses in legal information industry, it has become mandatory to foster long term growth opportunities to the Indian players in the market for legal information. Indeed, the neutral citation system can make it possible to establish a public nature of Indian jurisprudence by affording an infrastructure which assures that public documents from any judicial body may be cited in a neutral way, nevertheless, the neutral citation standard can contribute at large in solidifying the Indian legal publishing industry by reinforcing market competition, that contributes in harmonious development of a electronic research tool which is the need of the hour.

The system will dramatically contribute in diluting the existing monopoly of few publishers on citation methods, which will ensure sustainability of small players in this vast publishing industry. A ‘vendor neutral’ mode of citation system will make the citation depend on characteristics that are inherent in the opinions of the judicial body, which itself, and not private publishers, determine the citation. This citation will correspond directly to a case number and the related paragraph in that judicial pronouncement, thereby allowing the user to find the law in printed editions, CD-Rom, via the internet, and through a totally new technology.

This neutral citation system will make judicial decisions directly available to all publishers and to the public at large and therefore, the State, and not private players, will ‘own’ the final text of the cases. It will promote positive competition in the legal publishing industry and at the same it will promote the private players to compete by the value they add to decisions such as head notes, citing references, treatments given to cited precedents, rather than by preferred access to the text of case laws.

Neutral Citation: The Indian Scenario

India is a vast country with a very complex judicial system, with Courts and Tribunals existing right from taluka level to the national platform. Roughly, Indian judicial system admits to about 300 law reporters, with each one of them having their own style of citation.

The most popular reporter for High Court decisions is the All India Reporter (AIR). Similarly, the Supreme Court Reports (SCR) is the official reporter for Supreme Court decisions in India, apart from AIR. However, the process of making judicial decision available to public is more complex than the judicial system itself, thereby denying the access of legal information to public expeditiously. Quite often, the Supreme Court and High Courts in India themselves upload the decisions, however, it takes years to compile the edited versions. Nevertheless, if we take into account traditional citation methods, the Indian judiciary does not have a citation method that would permit it to name or publish the decisions in an official and permanent manner.

Thus, we can say that there is no standard format being followed by the Indian Courts with respect to the system of citing case laws, which in turn calls for a system of neutral citations in judgments and even academic writings, for greater acceptance amongst lawyers as well as public.

The availability of a unique, permanent citation for judicial decisions at the same time as Courts make them publicly accessible would greatly simplify the development of electronic research tools. In fact, this addition to the traditional mode of citation becomes crucial as electronic media is becoming increasingly important as core research sources for jurists. It is increasingly common to find Indian decisions on the Internet, for example, a few weeks or even months before they can be obtained in a printed collection of case laws. During this interval, the publishers of research tools do not have access to a definitive mode of citation. As the weight of electronic media continues to grow, it is important, and in the best interests of the Indian legal community and the general public, to have a citation method that will reflect this development.

The sheer number of Courts in India makes the need of adopting a neutral citation more demanding than it has been for other countries. Relying solely on the printed text of decisions adds much to the cost and burden of researching and complying with the ever increasing and complex legal issues. A uniform and more importantly, a neutral approach to legal citations is crucial for the long term accessibility and preservation of Indian legal information.

Currently in India each publisher follows its unique citation for published case laws. This has resulted in over 300 different types of citations. This is primarily due to non -availability of Neutral Citations as given by Courts in India. This is creating problems as different lawyers/Courts accept different citations.

To overcome this issue, we recommend Courts assign neutral Citation.

The basic components of neutral citation are:

  • Name of the Parties.

  • The year of publication of the judgment.

  • A unique abbreviation as a Court identifier.

  • A sequential judgment number issued by the particular Court.

  • A pinpoint paragraph reference.

(The parties) [the year of the decision] (the Court abbreviation) (the sequential number of the judgment) (para number)

It is to be noted that all paragraphs should be numbered sequentially commencing with the initial paragraph in the published judgment.

For example, A v. B [2006] SC 166 [9]

  • A and B are the parties involved

  • [2006] is the date of the judgment

  • SCI is the court in which the case was heard; in this case, the Supreme Court of India

  • 166 is the case number

  • [9] refers to paragraph number 9.

A medium neutral legal citation standard will foster a new generation of tools and capabilities benefiting thereby all players and allowing commercial entities to deliver a new generation of products and services limited only by their imagination and ability to innovate. However, the penetration of electronic media and legal familiarity with upcoming technologies vary dramatically between Indian jurisdictions and therefore, there still exists numerous Courts and bar associations, more specifically in rural India, which are yet to be persuaded of the merits, that the system of neutral citation carries in a whole.


In jurisdictions with greater scale as that of India, having such institutional complexity in judicial mechanism with millions of judgments, it has become vital to develop a system of citation that stands on the base of ‘medium neutral’ as well as ‘vendor neutral’ standards of citation. The questions confronting those who stand in favor of the neutral mode of citation system must be shifted from ‘Why?’ to ‘Why not?’ Why not adopt neutral citation? Why not invest the effort to conform the jurisdiction’s accumulation of electronic slip decisions, which in most of the cases extends back more than a decade, to their final ‘official’ versions?

In a country like India having vast judicial infrastructure, a reform can be called on, at least in the higher judiciary, so as to guarantee a free and a proper dissemination of Indian legal information, the availability of which is ensured to all independently of any medium or any vendor. In present arena, Courts and Judicial bodies already have electronic versions of cases and with a few mouse clicks the same could be stored in a format that would only inspire innovation rather than hamper it. The question is, are we ready to accept these reforms that are both important and is in the best interest of the Indian legal community.

[1]Technology Resource Committee Proposed Citation System-Report to the Board of Governors of the Wisconsin State Bar (22 June 1994) [] (last visited 21 August 2004)

[2] Catherine Vidler-Smit & John Prebble, The Emergence of Neutral Citation, Oxford University Commonwealth Law Journal, Summer 2004, P. 121

[3] Special Committee on Citation Issues Report on Recommendations (1996), American Bar Association [] (last visited 8 August 2005).

[4] England and Wales Court of Appeal (n 6) [2.3]

Written by: Mr. Abhishek Choudhary, Advocate, Supreme Court of India, Gold medalist in B.Sc. LL.B (Hons.) & Founder, Legis Orbis

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of any person or official associated with Legis Orbis. Examples of analysis performed within this article are only examples. They should not be utilized in real-world analytic products as they are based only on very limited and dated open source information. Assumptions made within the analysis are not reflective of the position of any person or official associated with Legis Orbis.


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