Ask any undergraduate law student the bane of their essay writing life, and they’ll come back with one word: structure!
Gone are the days of PEE (point, evidence, explanation – who can forget?!), and some law students swear by the CLEO method (Claim, Law, Evaluation, Outcome) but before you even dream (or have nightmares) of how to structure your essay, it’s important to remember that “methodology will not… result in top marks if you lack a proper understanding of the substantive law.”
Don’t get us wrong, law lecturers up and down the country will lick their lips at a well-structured essay, but an essay written by a student that lacks knowledge of the relevant law sticks out like a sore thumb; “You either know the relevant law or you don’t.” Another important point to remember is that, unlike A-level “broad brush strokes, focussing on the big ideas and overarching themes” just doesn’t cut it at university level. Your tweed wearing university lecturers are expecting you to “delve into the details of the materials, parsing carefully through the cases and statutes to identify the important language”.
So, how do you get to ‘know’ the relevant law? How do you read and understand relevant statutes and cases?
First things first, statutory law rules over any other law. However, because the UK is a common law jurisdiction (the law is developed through the decisions of judges and the courts so that similar cases reach a similar conclusion) statues may appear to carry less importance than cases. This isn’t helped by the fact that lectures and textbooks will only include one or two excerpts from the statute, “suggesting to students that they need only know those sections. Nothing could be further from the truth.”
That’s why it’s highly recommended that law students read the entire statute in order to be sure that it’s a law that is applicable to the question in hand. When it gets to the nitty-gritty of the statute, “Pay particular attention to the definitions contained within a statute, since a word in common usage may be given a technical definition in the statute.”
When reading and highlighting relevant parts of a statute, you need to make a note of “how they are interpreted or applied by the courts and… how they interact with other sections of the statute or with other statutes”, organising your findings into relevant subsections and therefore building your argument and evaluation.
Therefore, reading a statute to full effect means taking four key steps:
- Checking whether the statute is applicable to your essay question or coursework
- Analysing any defined terms
- Identifying contentious areas in the statute
- Pulling out any case law that supports or makes clear the statute.
Now that you’ve nailed statutes, case law is up next (the joy!). The most important thing to remember is that statutes are supplemented by case law which best shows how the statute should be applied.
The first thing to master when reading case law is vocabulary. “Lawyers use special vocabulary known as ‘terms of art’, which refers to either language that is unique to the law… [or] language that is used in ordinary conversation but which has a special additional meaning when used in legal contexts.” For example, a contract term may be unfair, but that does not mean it is unenforceable.
Making sense of case opinions can also be tough. Your lecturer will give you a pointer or two about the important aspects of a case and headnotes are always useful. However, “reading only the headnotes will not teach you how to understand sophisticated legal reasoning” and reading the full case will allow you to understand fully the case conclusion.
Reading an entire case allows you to distinguish and harmonise. “What?” Wait, just let us explain. Distinguishing one case from another is the process of identifying “how and why an earlier case differs from the situation presented”, perhaps because the facts of the case are different or because the reasons supporting the ruling can’t be applied. Harmonising means looking “at a number of different decisions and explain[ing] the direction in which the law is moving.” It’s highly likely that your lecturers will set you questions that require distinguishing or harmonisation, so that it forces you to look at a number of cases and demonstrate understanding. Pesky lecturers!
As cases can be long and complicated, summarising a case into a single page of A4 is super useful. Noting the case name, full citation and court is obviously necessary information to put as a header. Following that, jot down a couple of facts about the case, such as the claimant and the defendant’s argument, the rationale supporting the outcome and any queries you want to raise.
Here’s another four key steps to reading and understanding cases:
- Identify any ‘terms of art’ – AKA lawyer language
- Headnotes are useful, but try to read as much of the case as possible to understand legal reasoning
- Distinguish and harmonise similar cases to build your argument
- Summarise your cases into an amount of digestible information.
How to read and understand statutes and cases should be the first thing any law student masters. Once that’s all done and dusted, it’s on to actually writing the essays… but that’s a whole other story (or advice piece, whatever takes your fancy).
This article was written using information and extracts from S. I. Strong’s How to Write Law Essays & Exams, published by Oxford University Press. The first chapter of the book can be read here, and collections of statutes relating to specific areas of law can be found here.