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In Law, what is a Headnote?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 16, 2024
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A headnote is a summary which appears before the text of a legal decision, providing information about key points of law brought up in the decision. Headnotes are often added after the fact by editors and publishers, and are not considered part of the decision for legal purposes. When the judge who writes the opinion does write the headnote, it is still not considered part of law; only the decision itself enters into the body of law.

The headnote is designed to act as a quick reference for the reader. For people doing legal research, headnotes are extremely useful because they can be skimmed to determine whether or not the opinion is relevant to the research. For example, if the headnote makes it clear that the opinion pertains to a case about timber rights and the researcher is trying to find murder appeals, the researcher knows that the opinion is not worth reading.

Headnotes can also be useful in the same way that abstracts and summaries are in other contexts, to brief people on what to expect in the text. The headnote can include several keywords along with a brief description of the case and of the points decided by the judge. It also usually includes page numbers which people can consult to see specific areas of the decision. For example, if a headnote states that “the appellant's case was denied on the basis that the lower court's decision was sound,” it will include a page reference to take readers to the section of the opinion which examines the opinion of the lower court and explains why the decision was deemed valid.

Legal headnotes can be useful for people who want quick abstracts for study, as well. Law students are often expected to know case law well, and reading headnotes and taking notes on them can be used to provide the grounding for learning more about the opinion. This is one reason why legal publishers often add them if they are not already present, so that their texts will be more useful to people practicing or studying law.

People who report on the courts often use headnotes as well when they want to quickly report on a legal opinion to make a deadline. They can explore the entire opinion for a more in-depth report at a later juncture, relying on rapid reporting based on the headnote to get the story out before other news outlets.

MyLawQuestions is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a MyLawQuestions researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By anon932075 — On Feb 11, 2014

What is a flynote?

By BoniJ — On Aug 10, 2011

If I were a legal student or a legal writer for a publication, think how useful headnotes would be. There is so much case law and written legal proceedings that one would have to look for to find information, case law, and decisions on the topic one is writing on.

It must really help to have those little notes and summaries on what the paper is about. And then to have a list of key words to use so you could go online for more information.

I don't know how long they have been adding headnotes to legal papers, but it's a brilliant idea.

By sweetPeas — On Aug 09, 2011

Headnotes in legal decisions are very similar to abstracts written as summaries of medical, social science, pure science and other types of studies or reports.

One difference is that headnotes for legal papers and legal decisions can be accessed by anyone. But in some cases, medical, science and other subjects, the abstracts can be read by anyone, but the actual studies and reports often can only be accessed by doctors and scientists or other authorized people.

The difference seems to be that medical and scientific papers contain information that is confidential. Legal matters are, for the most part, public information.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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