Critically Evaluate Law Essay Format

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To write a good essay, you firstly need to have a clear understanding of what the essay question is asking you to do. Looking at the essay question in close detail will help you to identify the topic and ‘directive words’ (Dhann, 2001), which instruct you how to answer the question. Understanding the meaning of these directive words is a vital first step in producing your essay.

This glossary provides definitions of some of the more typical words that you may come across in an essay question. Please note that these definitions are meant to provide general, rather than exact guidance, and are not a substitute for reading the question carefully. Get this wrong, and you risk the chance of writing an essay that lacks focus, or is irrelevant.

You are advised to use this glossary in conjunction with the following Study Guides: Writing essays and Thought mapping written by Student Learning Development.

Essay termDefinition
Analyse
Break an issue into its constituent parts. Look in depth at each part using supporting arguments and evidence for and against as well as how these interrelate to one another.
AssessWeigh up to what extent something is true. Persuade the reader of your argument by citing relevant research but also remember to point out any flaws and counter-arguments as well. Conclude by stating clearly how far you are in agreement with the original proposition.
ClarifyLiterally make something clearer and, where appropriate, simplify it. This could involve, for example, explaining in simpler terms a complex process or theory, or the relationship between two variables.
Comment uponPick out the main points on a subject and give your opinion, reinforcing your point of view using logic and reference to relevant evidence, including any wider reading you have done.
CompareIdentify the similarities and differences between two or more phenomena. Say if any of the shared similarities or differences are more important than others. ‘Compare’ and ‘contrast’ will often feature together in an essay question.
ConsiderSay what you think and have observed about something. Back up your comments using appropriate evidence from external sources, or your own experience. Include any views which are contrary to your own and how they relate to what you originally thought.
ContrastSimilar to compare but concentrate on the dissimilarities between two or more phenomena, or what sets them apart. Point out any differences which are particularly significant.
Critically evaluateGive your verdict as to what extent a statement or findings within a piece of research are true, or to what extent you agree with them. Provide evidence taken from a wide range of sources which both agree with and contradict an argument. Come to a final conclusion, basing your decision on what you judge to be the most important factors and justify how you have made your choice.
DefineTo give in precise terms the meaning of something. Bring to attention any problems posed with the definition and different interpretations that may exist.
DemonstrateShow how, with examples to illustrate.
DescribeProvide a detailed explanation as to how and why something happens.
DiscussEssentially this is a written debate where you are using your skill at reasoning, backed up by carefully selected evidence to make a case for and against an argument, or point out the advantages and disadvantages of a given context. Remember to arrive at a conclusion.
ElaborateTo give in more detail, provide more information on.
EvaluateSee the explanation for ‘critically evaluate’.
ExamineLook in close detail and establish the key facts and important issues surrounding a topic. This should be a critical evaluation and you should try and offer reasons as to why the facts and issues you have identified are the most important, as well as explain the different ways they could be construed.
ExplainClarify a topic by giving a detailed account as to how and why it occurs, or what is meant by the use of this term in a particular context. Your writing should have clarity so that complex procedures or sequences of events can be understood, defining key terms where appropriate, and be substantiated with relevant research.
ExploreAdopt a questioning approach and consider a variety of different viewpoints. Where possible reconcile opposing views by presenting a final line of argument.
Give an account ofMeans give a detailed description of something. Not to be confused with ‘account for’ which asks you not only what, but why something happened.
IdentifyDetermine what are the key points to be addressed and implications thereof.
IllustrateA similar instruction to ‘explain’ whereby you are asked to show the workings of something, making use of definite examples and statistics if appropriate to add weight to your explanation.
InterpretDemonstrate your understanding of an issue or topic. This can be the use of particular terminology by an author, or what the findings from a piece of research suggest to you. In the latter instance, comment on any significant patterns and causal relationships.
JustifyMake a case by providing a body of evidence to support your ideas and points of view. In order to present a balanced argument, consider opinions which may run contrary to your own before stating your conclusion.
OutlineConvey the main points placing emphasis on global structures and interrelationships rather than minute detail.
ReviewLook thoroughly into a subject. This should be a critical assessment and not merely descriptive.
Show howPresent, in a logical order, and with reference to relevant evidence the stages and combination of factors that give rise to something.
StateTo specify in clear terms the key aspects pertaining to a topic without being overly descriptive. Refer to evidence and examples where appropriate.
SummariseGive a condensed version drawing out the main facts and omit superfluous information. Brief or general examples will normally suffice for this kind of answer.
To what extentEvokes a similar response to questions containing 'How far...'. This type of question calls for a thorough assessment of the evidence in presenting your argument. Explore alternative explanations where they exist.

References

Dhann, S., (2001) How to ... 'Answer assignment questions'. Accessed 12/09/11. http://www.education.ex.ac.uk/dll/studyskills/answering_questions.htm

The following resources have also been consulted in writing this guide:

Johnson, R., (1996) Essay instruction terms. Accessed 12/09/11. http://www.mantex.co.uk/samples/inst.htm

Student Study Support Unit Canterbury Christchurch College (no date) Common terms in essay questions. Accessed 22/02/08. http://www.wmin.ac.uk/page-2714

Taylor, A.M. and Turner, J., (2004) Key words used in examination questions and essay titles. Accessed 12/09/11 http://www.reading.ac.uk/internal/studyadvice/StudyResources/Essays/sta-planningessay.aspx#answering

Every law student is looking for the secret to writing a good law essay. “What do I need to include?” “How do I organise my ideas?” But most importantly, “how can I get access to the information I need to include quickly, yet efficiently?”

As a general theme throughout your study of the law, you are essentially being asked to assess the journey that the law has taken in each area, not merely to know what the law is. Using the Precedent Map which JustisOne has to offer is particularly helpful for this in that you are able to consider case relationships on a visual basis and make informed decisions about which cases you will prioritise for your research. How does it work? The bigger the size of the circle, the more common relationships between that case and your central case. The ones around the outside of the circle are the citing cases; those that came after your central case which considered it in their judgments. The ones inside the circle are the cited; past cases which your central case considered in its judgment.

 

 

Similarly, Citations in Context is also a great way to explore whether a particular case is on the specific point of law that you are interested in. JustisOne highlights where the case you have selected is mentioned in the judgment. This allows you to read around the section to see how they have linked or distinguished the two cases, enabling you to see how the law has evolved.

 

Furthermore, it is good practice to give a general analysis of a particular area of law before getting into the specifics. For example, ‘the law in this area has become stricter since its statutory codification’ or ‘this area of law has often strived towards achieving fairness’.

Firstly, you need to distinguish between a problem question and an essay question.

I know that with the overwhelming amount of research that law students must do you may be in a hurry when looking at a case. Often details get lost in the process, such as, looking in at an outdated decision of the court when actually a higher court has heard the case and given a different judgment. JustisOne makes this easier by flagging up very clearly that the case has been heard in a higher court, prompting you to treat the decision with care.

 

Problem questions

Introduction: Keep it short and to the point. There is no point trying to give a historical background to a particular area of law if the question provides you with a scenario and asks you to ‘Advise X’. Rather, identify the issues, refer back to the question and say what you’re going to do in this essay. Remember you have limited time in the exam and problem questions are often packed with a variety of issues for you to delve into and implement your analytical skills so don’t spend too long “setting the scene”.

Main body: with problem questions, you should evaluate each issue separately unless they have a clear link. Many academics encourage their students to follow the IRAC guideline: Identify the issues and the relevant legal rules, apply the rules to the issue and then draw a conclusion on the basis of that application. Identifying the issue would be something like ‘X would be liable for assault and battery as he pushed B’. Identifying the relevant rules and application would then be ‘In accordance with X Act, to constitute assault there needs to be intention. Furthermore, in light of X v X intention can be established through a number of ways so even though X may try to claim xxx it is unlikely that he will be able to escape liability’ which would be the conclusion. If a statute governs that area of law, always mention that before the case law as that takes precedence. Don’t waste time writing out a section of an Act, the marker has access to a statute book. If there is a particular word or phrase which you want to emphasise refer to that. Also, always state the strongest claim first and then bring in alternative claims subsequently.

Bloomsbury Law Tutors has suggested that the objective is not just to consider other possible arguments but to consider them and disprove them, in other words, why they are not as credible and have lower chances of success.

Students are often under the mistaken belief that a problem question does not need a closing paragraph, however, this is not the case. An overall conclusion is necessary to draw your points together and to add structure to your answer. A conclusion does not need to be long. It should merely sum up what you have discussed in your essay, without introducing anything new. It should also give an indication on your client’s chances of success.

Essay question

Introduction: it is similar to that of a problem question, except that you must adapt it to the type of essay question it is. As a general theme however, essay questions tend to address some sort of legal controversy around an area of law so it is necessary to do some wider reading, such as, articles and academic opinion so that you have different points of view to discuss.

As suggested by Bloomsbury Law Tutors (http://lawtutors.co.uk/how-to-write-first-class-law-essays/) essay questions can be sub categorised. Focusing on the wording of the question is key. For instance, ‘discuss’ means to critically evaluate both sides of a statement or argument. According to Bloomsbury Law Tutors, this type of question would be classified as a ‘legal theory’ question. Generally, there would be a statement warranting a discussion of its accuracy. In that type of question, you would be splitting your legal authorities to prove both why that statement is accurate and why it is not. A useful aspect of JustisOne that can help you with this is its recognition of search operators. For instance, the statement necessitating a discussion is usually a quote from a judgment. Some may find it beneficial to find the quote and read around it in order to understand more about the context and exactly what the judge meant by saying this. In JustisOne, you can put a statement in quotation marks in the search box and it will bring up the case or cases which mentioned it. Once you click on a case you can then click the pencil icon which will then highlight the search terms you entered, giving you instant access to the specific sections in the judgment.

 

Often you don’t need to recite the facts of a case, merely stating the decision may prove your point. This is where the Key Paragraphs feature on JustisOne is especially useful. You can incorporate these into your essays, outlining the most important aspects of the judgment as they are the most quoted passages in court. If you then click on ‘Highlight all quoted passages’, you will see a heatmap of all the sections of the judgment which have been quoted. The darker the shade of purple, the larger the number of cases that section has been quoted in. Click on the paragraph to see which cases specifically.

 

Higher marks will be gained where there is evidence of critical analysis of the impact of a particular issue on others matters within this area of law. Even though you should provide an evaluation, you shouldn’t be completely neutral, rather, you should indicate your stance throughout the essay but also offering another perspective too.

Another type of essay question would be ones to do with legal reform. The question would typically ask if you think that a particular area of law is in need of reform. In order to answer this well you would need to know the current state of the law as well as the pros and cons to then enable you to assess whether it should undergo reform. Also, knowing previous attempts of reform and solutions would allow you to propose new solutions that would be more effective than previous proposals.

What would also boost your grade is branching out to consider the impact of a particular area of law in terms of its social, political and economic consequences as well as policy considerations.

Often, cases are not only on one niche area of law. Different aspects of the judgment can be used to demonstrate various points in a range of legal contexts. Rather than having to read a whole case to find out which exact areas of law are covered within it, you can just select the Categories tab on JustisOne and a clear list with sub categories will be generated. This could potentially save you time from having to remember three different cases for instance, to indicate different points of law down to a mere one case that may encompass a range of areas.

 

Another type of common essay question is legal history, prompting a consideration of the development in a particular area of law over a certain period. An example would be ‘has the law in X strived towards achieving flexibility between X and X date?’. This also requires critical analysis. In order to explore an area of law on JustisOne you can select a category and you will be directed to an analytics graph which provides you with a visual format on the progression of the law over a period of time. If there have been any seminal cases at a specific point in time you will see a spike on the graph, instantly representing a significant development.

 

Overall, it is important to pay attention to the wording of any given question and focusing on the bigger picture of what is asked rather than trying to steer something in the direction you wished it had gone. In the words of Mad Men’s finest, Don Draper ‘make it simple, but significant’.

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