Ask any undergraduate law student about the bane of their essay-writing life, and they’ll come back with one word: structure! But before you even think of how to structure your essay, it’s important to remember that methodology will not get you top marks if you don’t show a good understanding of the substantive law.
While lecturers do like well-structured essays, an essay written by a student that lacks knowledge of the relevant law won’t make a great impression—it’s essential that you become acquainted with the relevant law. Another important point to remember is that just focusing on the big ideas and overarching themes like you would at A-level isn’t quite enough at university level. You will be expected you to delve into the details, analysing the cases and statutes carefully 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 similar conclusions), statutes may appear to carry less importance than cases. This isn’t helped by the fact that textbooks usually only include one or two excerpts from the statute, suggesting that you should only learn those sections. This, however, is very far 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 applicable to the question at hand. When it gets to the nitty-gritty of the statute, you should pay special attention to the definitions within a statute.
When reading and highlighting relevant parts of a statute, you need to make a note of how they’re interpreted and applied by the courts, as well as how they interact with other sections of the statute or other statutes. You should organise your findings into relevant subsections, helping you build your argument and evaluation.
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.
You’ve read the statutes, so case law is next. The most important thing to remember is that statutes are supplemented by case law that best shows how the statute should be applied.
The first thing to master when reading case law is vocabulary. As S. I. Strong points out, “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 doesn’t mean it’s unenforceable.
Making sense of case opinions can also be difficult. Your lecturer will probably give you a pointer or two about the important aspects of a case, and headnotes are always useful. However, reading only the headnotes won’t help you grasp complex legal reasoning; you should read the entire case to fully understand the case conclusion.
Reading an entire case allows you to distinguish and harmonise. Distinguishing one case from another is a process of identifying how and why a previous case differs from the one you’re looking at. This might be because the facts of the case are different or because the reasons supporting the ruling can’t be applied. Harmonising means looking at many different decisions and explaining the direction in which the law is moving. It’s highly likely that your lecturers will set you questions that require distinguishing or harmonisation, forcing you to look at a number of cases and demonstrate understanding.
As cases can be long and complicated, summarising a case into a single page of A4 is very useful. The case name, full citation and court are obviously necessary pieces of 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 are four tips for reading and understanding cases:
- Identify any “terms of art”;
- 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.
Reading and understanding statutes and cases should be the first thing any law student masters. Once you’re done with that, all that’s left to do is write the essay.
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.
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