Guidance on Answering Coursework Questions

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What qualities are markers looking for in coursework?

The indispensible qualities are accuracy, clarity, depth of analysis, completeness and common sense. Persuasive argument will be logically structured, and well supported by authority. The most impressive work often engages particularly fully with issues of real legal difficulty or uncertainty, but does so in order to give helpful advice rather than revelling in complexity for its own sake.

What type of writing is the best model for a good coursework style?

Legal judgments. The judge's task is not unlike the task normally set by way of coursework, and most judges write very well. The judicial approach needs to be tempered for your purposes, though. It would not be appropriate to attempt to be magisterial. A good approach to bear in mind is that of the professional lawyer. Ask yourself as practitionerwhether your work, and every phrase of it, is sufficiently useful to the reader to justify your fee.

Are there any special rules relating to legal writing which I ought to find out about?

Very few. The best advice is to write simply and correctly. Many expressions which people sometimes associate with the law ("herein", "abovementioned", "it shall be argued" and so on) are fustian, and modern lawyers avoid them. It is wise to use the conventional ways of referring to judges ("Smith J", "Brown LJ") so that you become accustomed to them and do not have to worry later about getting them wrong and appearing discourteous or inexperienced.

Does an answer to a problem question need an introduction and a conclusion?

The briefest of introductions - perhaps a couple of sentences noting the main areas of law to be addressed - can help to concentrate your mind and indicate to the reader that the answer is going to be broadly on target. If your advice is complex, there is something to be said for summing it up in a final paragraph. Other concluding remarks are unlikely to be needed.

Is it best to deal with the given facts from the start, or to set out the applicable law and then turn to the facts?

Opinions differ, and it might be wise to ask your tutor whether he/she has a strong preference. It is often helpful to use a short preliminary survey of the law as a means of locating and then focusing upon the precise issue raised by the facts, but writing of this sort should lean towards analysis rather than mere exposition. Most markers will be very wary of an answer which appears to be postponing engagement with the facts as long as possible in favour of abstract discussion of law (or the parties’ behaviour, or trade practice, or ethics etc).

Should I set out both sides of the argument, or state what I think is the correct legal position?

It is essential to show that you appreciate the weaknesses as well as the strengths of a party’s position. Equally it is good practice to test your arguments (against competing considerations of policy, for example). It is not usually necessary or advisable to set out separate answers for each party involved unless the question’s rubric expressly requires you to do so.

How important is the question’s rubric?

A general rubric, such as “Discuss”, or “Advise the parties”, is little more than an invitation to you to apply the law to the facts. If you are asked to advise only one party, you should concentrate on their case, but cover the case against them while doing so. It is not necessary to put your advice literally in the form of an address to any party. Where a rubric contains specific instructions (eg. advise on remedies) it is essential that you follow it.

Aspects of the coursework question seem to go beyond the point we have reached in the lectures. Is that possible?

Yes. Coursework is constructed and timetabled in order that it should broadly correspond to current or recent lecture topics, but it invariably spans a number of legal issues, and some may not yet have been touched upon by your lecturer. You will be expected to have undertaken the necessary research to tackle all aspects of the question unless you are told otherwise.

Our tutor has given us instructions which are inconsistent with some of the present guidance. Which should we follow?

Follow your tutor’s instructions.

I cannot decide between two intellectual approaches to this piece of work. Can I get guidance from my tutor?

No, not in respect of a specific exercise. Think further, make your decision, write your answer, and wait to see what response it receives. The experience of feeling uncertain (and later overcoming your perplexity) is a vital part of the learning process. Attempts to divine the “right” answer from any source except your own study and reflection deprive you of that experience as well as harming the integrity of the exercise for all involved. You are welcome to discuss coursework in general terms with any member of staff at any time.

Is it ever appropriate to question the given facts?

Rarely. In general, you should assume that the facts are capable of being proved. You may quite properly indicate the boundary to a legal principle by suggesting the point at which modification of the facts would render it inapplicable. You may want to look behind the facts to make a working assumption about some other aspect of the situation with which you are dealing. There will be credit for doing so providing the exercise is legally interesting rather than gratuitous. You may conceivably discuss the possibility that the facts are other than they seem, provided your idea is highly plausible and necessary in order to reveal an important further legal aspect of the situation.

Are all the facts in the question bound to be legally relevant?

No. Some, particularly near the beginning of problem questions, may do no more than set the scene. As you go further through the question, it becomes increasingly likely that all the facts do require comment. It is remotely possible that a question may contain irrelevant material simply to test students’ ability to recognise it as such, but do not assume that this is common feature of problem questions.

How should an answer to a problem question be structured?

The issues should be analysed in a logical and effective order. The ideal approach will vary from subject to subject, and between individual problem questions in the same area. In criminal law, for example, it is often best to begin by isolating one or two offences which might be charged on a broad view of the facts. One would then state their elements before focusing on further definition and discussion of those which might be particularly difficult to prove in the circumstances. In civil law the most logical structure may mirror the way in which a statement of claim would be assembled. After all, it is easier to discuss breach of contract and loss after you have established what the parties undertook pursuant to the contract.

Can I use subheadings to make the structure of my answer clearer?

A degree of signposting within your answer is likely to be helpful, as long as it does not become so elaborate that it distracts from your substantive response to the question.

Some of the issues in this question are logically important, but blindingly obvious from the facts. Should I mention them?

Cases have been lost because draftsmen failed to include the obvious in their pleadings. If a vital link in your argument is plainly present on the face of the question, you should still draw attention to it, albeit very briefly. In some areas there are exceptions to this rule, however, and your instincts will be your best guide as your experience increases. In an answer to a contract problem, for example, the presence of consideration would probably not even be worth mentioning unless there were a real doubt whether consideration had been provided.

How many cases should I use in my answer?

Consider the uses which may be made of caselaw. When you refer to a principle, it is usually appropriate to cite a well-known case to back it up. More than one case per principle would probably not be needed. A case may be one of a line of authorities showing the limits of the applicability of a principle, or perhaps its evolution; it would probably be appropriate to refer to several such cases if you are discussing the series which they form. Cases may appear to contradict each other, so that they constitute an area of controversy; a proper answer might emphasise the most academically favoured case, or the one closest to the problem question on the facts, while showing familiarity with the others. Rarely, and perhaps only in researched work, you may use caselaw to indicate the full extent of the learning on a given topic; your answer would make reference to all the relevant authorities. Adherence to these and other rationales for citing cases will make your use of authority not only sufficient but intellectually effective.

Should I always give the facts of cases?

It depends on the use which you want to make of each case. If you cite a case merely as authority for a legal principle, there is probably no need to give its facts. If you are going to discuss a case in detail, perhaps because it is a recent controversial majority decision of the House of Lords which turns upon the differing views taken of its facts, your discussion would be clearer if you set out the factual context at the outset.

Should I always use the full names of cases, full references, footnotes and a bibliography?

On the first mention the full name of the case should normally be given. Thereafter it can be abbreviated. Full case references are required in researched coursework and prize essays, but not in ordinary coursework, though it is always helpful to mention the dates of cases (you are not expected to be able to remember them in the exams). Footnotes and a bibliography are required in researched coursework and prize essays, but not otherwise. Footnotes, if used, should largely be confined to providing references to your sources. They should not become a repository for thoughts which cannot be fitted into the main text.

I don’t think I can stay within the word limit. Does it matter if I exceed it?

If you exceed the word limit your answer will be penalised, and if you exceed it grossly your work will not be marked. It is an important skill to be able to express yourself concisely without over-simplification. You may well have to be selective in composing your answer, but that is inherent in the construction of a robust argument anyway.

How much use of academic writings is expected?

It depends on the nature of the coursework. If it is researched work, or a prize essay, you must show suitable familiarity with the academic literature. Essay questions will usually require you to give more attention to academic writings than problem questions. Shorter and less factually intricate problem questions may demand some knowledge of academic output; they may well be designed to lead you directly to a narrowly defined but much debated issue to undertake discussion of it in depth. Long and involved problem questions may require you only to work your way through the facts by application of positive law. Any crucial academic debates are likely to have been mentioned in lectures.

Do I always have to say what I think is the best view?

Yes. You have been asked for your opinion, and you must give it. Provided your reasoning is clear, based on proper understanding of the law and on sensible reactions to the facts, you will not lose much credit simply because the marker would have reached a different conclusion. Many marks are lost, however, by answers which use the supposed uncertainty of the law as an excuse for failure to assess the strengths of competing arguments.

Is it ever appropriate to adopt a particular view of a problem for the tactical reason that it provides the best route through the question?

Yes. If you think there are two plausible answers to a question, and one would lead you to reject most of the given facts as irrelevant while the other would allow you to make good use of those facts, you would do well to adopt the second view. You do not have to be intellectually dishonest; if in fact you prefer the first approach, say so, but go on to consider the second one as an alternative.

I have finished writing my answer. Is there anything else I should do before handing it in?

Put it to one side, at least overnight and preferably for longer, and then read through it. If there is any point in your reading at which you need to pause to wonder about the sense of what you have written, that passage needs to be re-drafted. Check the spelling, punctuation and so on. There is no excuse for handing in badly written work. If you are hazy about any points of grammar (use of apostrophes, for example) find out the rules and learn them.

Are there any formal presentational instructions to follow?

Make sure your work is as easy to read as possible (ie. use a standard font and print it out on a printer which is working properly), and check that there is enough of a margin for the marker to write comments beside the body of the text. Work need not be double-spaced, however.

Is it a good idea to compare notes with other students once coursework has been handed back?

It is often useful. It is entirely a matter for individual students, though, and nobody should feel under pressure to share their coursework with others.

My tutor seems to have found little to comment on in my answer, but has given me a mark in the low 50s. How should I do better next time?

Some major flaws can be quite tersely expressed (eg. superficiality, lack of discernible structure, major authorities missed, basic mistakes of law) so check very carefully since brief comments may in fact reflect serious shortcomings. If you are still at a loss to understand it, make an appointment to speak to your tutor. You are entitled to sufficient feedback to help you to improve.

Why are marks of more than 80% hardly ever awarded?

This is a convention common to most law schools. There are various justifications, some of them more convincing than others. Comparative assessment is a major component of the marking process, so that a mark in fact tends to measure the extent to which an answer is better or worse than an average performance. This approach makes it difficult to classify any piece of work as wholly worthless (0%) or perfect (100%). There may also be a sense that the highest marks can only properly be awarded for exercises of a certain level of difficulty (which Diploma coursework would not begin to approach). The convention is well understood, and should not be a cause for concern.

I think the mark I have been given is completely mistaken. Can I do anything about it?

The marker should be willing to spend some time discussing this with you in order to try to explain further to you why the mark is what it is. This should not be regarded as an invitation to put pressure upon the marker to change the mark. If you remain dissatisfied, you may seek a verification of the mark through the University’s Academic Registry.

Why do coursework marks not count towards our final Diploma results?

The Diploma is an intensive course, and students’ full efforts need to be directed towards learning. The Law Department’s opinion is that coursework can assist that process in a number of ways, but that it would cease to do so if it became an end in itself. In order to prevent that, the status of coursework remains informal.

Thanks to David Herling (Senior Lecturer in Law, and Programme Director for the GDL) for this useful guidance