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Finding the law

Contributed by FriedaEvans and current to 1 May 2016

Finding the law isn't always easy. Even lawyers sometimes have difficulties. In recent years several useful books for lay people have been published. These are often easier to read than statutes and law reports and still provide the information required.

In the NT there are four other good starting points for those lost in the law:
  • NT Library: has print copies of NT and Commonwealth legislation and some State legislation. It has substantial holdings of the NT Government Gazette as well as some Australian law reports. Internet access is available for members of the public. The library catalogue is available on the internet at
  • Charles Darwin University library: allows members of the public to access its print collection of legal materials, including law reports and journals, textbooks and legislation; access to the computers and some online resources are limited to its students and staff. See the library website for more information
  • Darwin Community Legal Service: has legal advice sessions at which members of the public can talk to a lawyer.
  • NT Legal Aid Commission: has a free telephone Helpline service for the public to get legal information on a range of subjects, as well as free legal advice clinics in family, criminal and civil law.
Although local public libraries don't carry extensive law collections, some have basic law books. In special cases and by prior arrangement, the Courts Library can be used by people in certain professions, such as teachers, advisers, officers of government departments and researchers. A person representing themselves in the Supreme Court may be granted permission to use the Courts Library collection in Darwin while their case is active.

On the internet

There is a maze of legal information available on the internet. When surfing the net, it is important to remember that not everything published is factual or correct. The old saying 'don't believe everything you read' definitely applies. Any legal information found on the web should be double-checked for accuracy and whether it applies in the NT with a librarian or a legal organisation.

Some particularly useful websites can be found at:
  • this site has Commonwealth (Federal) legislation. Numerical legislation is available from 1973 onwards and compilations of legislation from 1 January 2005.
  • this site has Commonwealth, State and Territory case law and legislation, and some very useful links to overseas legal sites and key organisations.
  • this site has all the NT legislation. Current and historical consolidations are available; NT Hansard is also available from this link. The register of legislation has the numerical acts as well as the bills before the current session and recent sessions.
  • this site allows business people and members of the public to access legal information by topic of interest. It also has links to legal organisations. It is more useful for areas of the law covered by Commonwealth legislation.
  • this site has links to all the judgments and sentences delivered in the NT Supreme Court.
  • #: this site has the judgments of the NT Local Court

In print

The following is a brief guide to finding statute law (legislation) and case law (law reports).


An Act is referred to by its name and date - for example Family Law Act 1975 (Cth). The name indicates the subject matter of the Act, and the year it passed through Parliament. It helps to know whether an Act is a Commonwealth law (a law passed by the Federal Parliament and which applies to all States and Territories) or a law specific to a State or Territory. The abbreviation '(Cth)' included after the date means the Act is a Commonwealth Act; an NT Act usually has '(NT)' included. Acts are also numbered by Parliament, for example, the Family Law Act is No. 53 of 1975, which means it was the 53rd Act passed by the relevant Parliament that year. Amendments to an Act are listed by number only.

Always note the date and name of an Act because it may be replaced by a new Act of the same name.

Acts passed by the various Parliaments in any given year are published in loose form and collected in special books called statute books. Periodically a reprint of an Act is issued which incorporates the principal or original Act and all the amendments that have been made by later Acts.

Private publishing companies also produce copies of legislation with all amendments incorporated. Important Commonwealth legislation is made available in this way.

Every six months, the NT Office of the Parliamentary Counsel produces an Index to Legislation, which lists current legislation by title, showing the latest reprint and any amendments. Also included are the South Australian Acts still in force in the NT. This publication is produced electronically and is available at

Reading and understanding some Acts or portions of Acts is not easy, although most are now written in simpler language than they once were. Certain words and phrases in an Act often have special meaning so there is usually a definitions section near the beginning. At the end of some Acts are schedules, which may contain tables, forms for court documents and other important information. The Acts Interpretation Act 1901 (Cth) and the Interpretation Act 1978 (NT) are key tools. An example Act is shown in Diagram 1.

NT Acts come into force either when they are passed by Parliament or according to a section within the Act; sometimes reference needs to be made to the NT Government Gazette to locate the commencement date. NT regulations commence on the date of gazettal unless there is a provisions stating otherwise. Copies of the Gazette are only available electronically on the internet at; print copies are no longer available for purchase.

Law reports

The more important decisions made by courts and tribunals (the common law) are published in law reports. A typical reported decision will contain the names of the parties involved in a dispute, a case summary listing the relevant facts, the court's decisions - called the headnote - and the text of the judgments. Judgments are reported verbatim, that is using the judge's exact words, together with the rationale behind the decision. Lawyers adopt a shorthand method of referring to cases which is used throughout this book. For example: The names of the parties are cited first, then the year the case was published, the volume number and name of the particular report in which the case appears, for example, volume 165 of the Commonwealth Law Report (CLR) or volume 80 of the Australian Law Report (ALR), and finally the page on which the case begins, which in this case is pages 178 and 561, respectively.

Halsbury's Laws of Australia and the Laws of Australia contain a compilation of cases arranged under topics and details on where to find them; these services are available in print and electronically on subscription. NT cases are mainly reported in the Northern Territory Law Reports, Northern Territory Reports, Australian Criminal Reports and Federal Law Reports. These volumes can currently be found at the Charles Darwin University library (see Contact points ).

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