Legal Encyclopedias

Legal Encyclopedias

Legal encyclopedias provide (generally) a brief, integrated statement and summary of the law. They pull together an enormous body of legal literature, definitions, rules, and practice points derived mainly from case law. Indexes and cross-references are provided. Sections may be written by experts or by editorial staff who are not themselves legal scholars, as happens with legal databases. Generally they are more descriptive than analytical. Legal Encyclopedias tend to be most useful at the beginning of a Legal Research project to provide an overview of specific topics and to briefly outline issues that may be involved. Legal Encyclopedias may also be useful at the close of a research project to again provide an overview and a check that no issue has been overlooked.

Sometimes, law encyclopedia articles are often oversimplified. It is said that legal encyclopedias emphasize case law, and generally do a poor job with statutory or Administrative law subjects.

The earliest United States legal encyclopedia was Thornton” s University Encyclopedia of Law (1883). The Cyclopedia of Law and Procedure was published by the American Law Book Company in 1902.

Later appeared “Corpus Juris Secondum” (CJS), published by Thomson Reuters (West); and “American Jurisprudence 2d” (AmJur), formerly published by Lawyer’s Cooperative. See Corpus Juris Secundum and American Jurisprudence (encyclopedia).

Enciclopedic Dictionaries

In the introduction to A Dictionary of Statutory Interpretation, his author, William D. Popkin, explained that ordinary “dictionaries … present the reader with one or more ways in which words are or were used. It was not always that way. A rival tradition, at least since the early 17th
Century, was for dictionaries to contain “encyclopedic” material”, as explained by Herbert C. Morton, in this “The Story of Webster’s Third” (1994) in the following “two senses of the term:

  1. many of the entries included biographical sketches of real, fictional, and mythological people, and explanations of geographical locations; and
  2. the word definitions themselves often included reference material routinely included in encyclopedias.

The 1932 Britannica Encyclopedia acknowledges that “[b]etween the dictionary and the encyclopedia the dividing line cannot be sharply drawn.” (‘ entry for “Dictionary” in the Encyclopedia Britannica, Vol. 7, p. 339, 14th ed., 1929).”
In relation to the debate about a potential distinction between a dictionary and an encyclopedia, Haiman, in his “Dictionaries and Encyclopedias” (50 Lingua 329, 342-43 (1980) wrote that “semantics [is] the relationship between signs and their meanings,” and pragmatics “has been extended so that [it] includes the relationship of signs not only to their users, but to the general nonlinguistic context, and thence to the world at large;” “the intent of dictionaries is semantic while that of encyclopedias is pragmatic;” and “[a]n attack on the separation of dictionaries and encyclopedias is therefore necessarily an attack on the theoretical significance of semantics and pragmatics as mutually independent domains.” ).

“Ever since the 19th Century, however, the encyclopedic tradition -continues the author of the “A Dictionary of Statutory Interpretation”– has been on the defensive, reflecting Noah Webster’s view (presented initially in his American Dictionary of the English Languages in 1828) that definitions are what dictionaries do best”.

Similarly, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, an “English Dictionary ought not to include the technical words of different sciences, as little ought it to attempt to supply the place of popular treatises on the different branches of human knowledge; it must everywhere preserve the line firm and distinct between itself and an encyclopedia. Let the quotations yield as much information as they can be made to yield, in subordination to their primary purpose, which is to illustrate the word, and not tell us about the thing. . . .” (1)

In relation to law dictionaries, in the words of the author, they “must also decide how encyclopedic to be. The older legal dictionaries, such as Giles Jacob’s 1729 English Law Dictionary, and the first U.S. legal dictionary (by Bouvier, in 1839), were much more encyclopedic than modern legal word-books like Black’s, Ballentine’s, and Mellinkoff ‘s, in part to compensate for weaknesses in legal education” in the opinion of Mellinkoff (in his paper “The Myth of Precision and the Law Dictionary” – 31 UCLA L.Rev. 423, 430 (1983)).

In fact, in the Giles Jacob’s legal dictionary is stated that this work reference “contain[ed] the interpretation and definition of words and terms used in the law; and also the whole law and the practice thereof, under all the heads and titles of the same. Together with such informations relating thereto as explain the history and antiquity of the law, and our manners, customs, and original government.” The Preface to Giles Jacob’s Dictionary shows that the work was a “kind of library,” an “elaborate treatise.” (pp. 5-6)

Joseph Story’s review of 1839 Bouvier’s Dictionary located it somewhere between a word-book and an encyclopedia: “It supplies a defect in our libraries, . . .where the small dictionaries are so brief as to convey little information of an accurate nature to students, and the large ones are rather compendiums of the law than explanatory statements of terms; yours has the great advantage of an intermediate character.” (2) For example, he mentions that Bouvier’s Law Dictionary article for “Congress” contains (pp. 208-11) five columns about legislative powers and how laws are passed.

Great Encyclopedias

The first use of the term “great encyclopedias” to describe encyclopedia publications (including “English and Empire Digest” is found in “Butterworths: History of a Publishing House” , a work that Butterworths originally published in 1980 to celebrate its accomplishments.

Halsbury’s Laws of England

The first edition of Halsbury’s Laws of England appeared in 1907, and to mark the centenary LexisNexis published a collection of Centenary Essays in one volume, including a reprint of the 1st edition by Lord Halsbury himself. Its an interesting essay to read, as he goes into the history of the work – originally suggested by a commission of 1866, with the idea of trying to codify the common law, but nothing came of this until it was later taken up by Butterworth’s as you mention. Here is a quotation from this essay:

“[This is] not a mere encyclopedia, it is not merely a collection of cases, but a number of treatises composed by learned lawyers, supported by the decision of the great judges who have from time to time adorned the English Bench; it is hoped that when finished the work will furnish a complete statement of the laws of England.”

The situation before Halsbury’s Laws of England is summed up by an article in the Law Journal for 15 November 1957:

“. . . at that time their libraries comprised law reports and individual text books, but no legal encyclopedias . . . The solicitor faced with a legal problem of any magnitude at all was by circumstances compelled to send the papers to counsel who, in turn, had no alternative but to study the multitude of available text books and browse among the reports and statutes.”

The article goes on describe the effect of the publication of Halsbury’s Laws of England to the state of legal research:

“A question which had hitherto involved hours of patient research on the part of counsel could now be answered in very much shorter time at the solicitor’s desk. Even in the case of involved points incapable of answer it became possible to start the necessary research with a list of authorities and pointers.”

Halsburys Laws of England attempts to cover every legal subject.

In Canada, there are several works that follow the Halsburys Laws of England model:

  • Canadian Encyclopedia Digest (Western Edition), published by Carswell
  • Canadian Encyclopedic Digest (Ontario Edition), published by Carswell
  • Halsburys Laws of Canada, published by LexisNexis Butterworths
  • Canadian Abridgment
  • Juris Classeur, in French
  • Juris Classeur Quebec, in French

Legal Encyclopedias as Secondary Authority and other Legal Research Sources

National Encyclopedias

There is more information about this subjet related to the field of legal research in the legal encyclopedia.

State Encyclopedias

There is more information about this subjet related to the field of legal research in the legal encyclopedia.

Legal Encyclopedias as Legal Research Sources

See the Section below.



1. Richard C. Trench, On Some Deficiencies in our English Dictionaries, pp. 60-61
(1857) (published in Transactions of the Philological Society (1857)).

2. Frederick Hicks, Materials and Methods of Legal Research, p. 253 (Third Revised
Edition 1942).

See Also

References and Further Reading

Mentioned in these Entries

Administrative law, American Jurisprudence (encyclopedia), Corpus Juris Secundum, Legal History Resources, Legal Research, Legal citation and the Encyclopedia, List of Legal Encyclopedias, List of Legal History Broader Databases, Print Vs. Online Encyclopedias.

About the Author/s and Reviewer/s

Author: international