Are you wondering how to write a case brief or how to read a case brief? In this post, we’ll introduce you to the basic elements of a good case brief, including what they are and what their significance or meaning is. We will also offer a basic case brief example (using a US Supreme Court case) for illustration purposes.
Briefing cases is essential but, luckily, not too difficult. After reading this post, you will certainly know how to prepare a good case brief yourself.
What is a Case Brief?
A case brief is a summary and analysis of a court opinion. Often, law students will brief cases to develop a better understanding of a significant decision and to examine and discuss the issues involved in the case. Mastering a case brief, both in terms of how to read it and how to prepare a case brief yourself, is an essential and very useful skill. It is also an essential tool for exam preparations.
There are different options for accessing and researching the legal cases that you wish to brief. Many law students and most legal professionals tend to use commercial databases, such as Lexis and Westlaw, which offer extensive and sophisticated functions. However, court opinions can often also be accessed for free via a court’s own website or databases such as Google Scholar or – in the United Kingdom and Ireland – BAILII (short for the ‘British and Irish Legal Information Institute’).
How to Write a Case Brief: The Basic Structure
Title (Parties, Caption)
The first element of a case, and accordingly also of a case brief, is the title of the case. The title consists of the names of the parties. This is also known as the “caption.”
For example, a caption could be “Brown v. Board of Education” or “Miranda v. Arizona” and so on.
The caption usually tells you the last name of the person or persons who brought the lawsuit and the person who is being sued. These two sides are often referred to as the “parties” or as the “litigants” in the case.
For example, if Ms. Smith sues Mr. Jones, the case caption may be Smith v. Jones or, depending on the court, Jones v. Smith.
There can be multiple parties on both sides, and the persons involved can be individuals or (business) organisations and legal entities.
In criminal law, cases are brought by government prosecutors on behalf of the government itself. This means that the government is the named party. For instance, if the US federal government charges John Doe with a crime, the case caption will be United States v. Doe. If a state brings the charges instead, the caption will be State v. Doe, People v. Doe, or Commonwealth v. Doe, depending on the practices of that state.
In the UK, the caption of criminal cases will be “the Crown” against a defendant. The Crown is usually represented by an “R”, where R stands for Rex or Regina (Latin for King or Queen) as the representative of the state.
So, for example, a British criminal case against John Doe would be called R v. Doe.
Below the case name you will find some letters and numbers. These letters and numbers are the legal citation for the case. A citation may tell you the name of the court that decided the case (although that’s not always included), the source where the opinion was published, and the year in which the court decided the case.
For example, “U.S. Supreme Court, 485 U.S. 759 (1988)” refers to a United States Supreme Court case decided in 1988 that appears in Volume 485 of the United States Reports starting at page 759.
The above is actually an example of a citation that does not include the court name. This is because the reference to “U.S.” refers to a collection of reports that only publish Supreme Court cases, meaning it’s not necessary to specify the court name in this instance.
Let’s also look at a UK example:
Smith v Jones  2 WLR 123 refers to a case between Smith and Jones, reported in 1986 in Volume 2 of the Weekly Law Reports, beginning on page 123.
The next piece of information is the name of the judge who wrote the opinion or part of the opinion.
Most opinions assigned in law school are issued by courts with multiple judges.
The name tells you which judge wrote that particular opinion. For example, in a US Supreme Court case, this could indicate that “Justice Kennedy delivered the opinion of the court“.
In older cases, the opinion often simply states a last name followed by the initial “J.”, which stands for “Judge” or “Justice,” depending on the court.
On occasion, the author information will use the Latin phrase “per curiam” instead of a judge’s name. Per curiam means “by the court.” It signals that the opinion reflects a common view among all the judges rather than the writings of a specific judge.
The procedural history element indicates whether the case has already been decided by one or more lower courts. If that’s the case, then the procedural history will say “on appeal” or something similar. If the case has not yet been decided by a lower court, it will indicate that it was on trial.
Decisions and briefs will recount the relevant facts of the case or, in other words, what happened.
For instance, the facts of a case dealing with a contractual issue might be that Party A entered into a contract with Party B for the delivery of certain items but then Party A failed to deliver.
Surprisingly, there are no particular rules for what facts a judge must include in the fact section of an opinion. Sometimes the fact sections are long, and sometimes they are short. Sometimes they are clear and accurate, and other times they are vague or incomplete. When you think about how to write a case brief and its facts section, you will however need to be very concise and only include the most essential factual elements.
A case brief will include a separate section called “issue”. Here, the brief will describe the legal issue or issues that the facts of the case present and that need to be answered by the court.
In an actual court opinion, the legal issues will normally not be listed separately but they will be somewhere in the opinion itself. It is however possible that a court enumerates the legal issues at the outset of its opinion.
Next, there will be the part of the brief that contains the actual reasons for why a case was decided in a certain way. The brief will offer a summary of what the court wrote in this regard. In essence, the reasoning is an application of the applicable legal rules to the facts of the case, followed by an appropriate conclusion.
Based on the reasoning, there will be a holding: This answers the legal issues and states what the court decided or ruled or ‘held’.
Most of the opinions that law student read are “majority” opinions, meaning that a majority of judges supported the holding or outcome of the case.
When judges decide a case, assuming we deal with a court consisting of more than one judge, they vote on which side should win. They also try to agree on a legal rationale to explain why that side has won. A majority opinion is an opinion joined by the majority of judges on that court.
Although many decisions are unanimous, some are not. Some judges may disagree and will write a separate opinion offering a different approach. Those opinions are called “concurring opinions” or “dissenting opinions,” and they appear after the majority opinion.
A “concurring opinion” – sometimes called a “concurrence” – explains a vote in favor of the winning side but based on a different legal rationale. A “dissenting opinion” – sometimes just called a “dissent” – explains a vote in favor of the losing side. They are not binding but can still offer important insights that may be relevant for future cases.
How to Brief a Case – Example
Let’s look at an example of a case brief. We will use the case of McBoyle v United States.
The title of the case – that is the parties or the caption – is McBoyle v United States.
The Citation is 283 U.S. 25 (1931) – this indicates that it was decided by the Supreme Court, because “U.S.” refers to the United States Reports, which contain the official reports for US Supreme Court decisions.
The author of the opinion is Justice Holmes and the procedural history “on appeal” indicates that this case has previously been decided by a lower court or lower courts.
The facts summarize what happened:
The defendant was convicted of violating the National Motor Vehicle theft Act because he intentionally conveyed a stolen airplane from Illinois to Oklahoma. The National Motor Vehicle Theft Act defined vehicle as an “automobile, automobile truck, automobile wagon, motor cycle, or any other self-propelled vehicle not designed for running on rails…” The Act also prohibited the interstate transportation of stolen vehicles. The defendant was convicted of violating the Act. He appealed this ruling.
The legal issue in this case was as follows:
Is an airplane defined as a “vehicle” within the meaning of the National Motor Vehicle Theft Act?
The court’s holding can be summarized as follows:
No. an airplane is not defined as a vehicle within the meaning of the National Motor Vehicle Theft Act.
The court reversed the lower court’s judgment, which found that an airplane is a vehicle within the meaning of the Act.
Finally, here is our reasoning – that is the discussion of the reasons why the court derived at its holding:
“The term “vehicle” usually refers to a thing that runs on land, which is also in line with the intended restrictive definition of the Act. The defendant was therefore not properly warned by the statute that his conduct would violate the National Motor Vehicle Theft Act.”
Try To Brief a Case Yourself
This concludes this example of a case brief, and our introduction on how to write a case brief. You will see that with some practice, the art of how writing case brief, and using an analytical approach when reading cases, will become easier and easier.
Some students even prefer adding an additional element to their briefs, that is a conclusion. For instance, the brief would then follow an IRAC (Issue, Rule, Analysis, Conclusion) structure. While this is certainly not wrong, it is however somewhat unusual as the IRAC method is not commonly used for briefs.
And now – why don’t you pick any case of your choice and try briefing it for yourself?