| A Guide to Answering Law Essay Questions in Exams
1. Case Law
One of the most important requirements for answering questions on the law is that you must be able to back the points you make with authority, usually either a case, a statute or a constitutional provision. It is not good enough to state that the law is such and such, without stating the case or provision which says that that is the law.
This means that you must be prepared to learn fairly long lists of cases. For exam purposes you need to memorise the name of the case, a brief description of the facts, and the legal principle which the case established.
Once you have revised a topic well, you should find that a surprisingly high number of cases on that topic begin to stick in your mind anyway, but there will probably be some that you have trouble recalling. Knowing the names of cases makes you look more knowledgeable but if you do forget a name, referring briefly to the facts will identify it. It is not necessary to learn that the dates of cases, though it is useful if you know whether it is a recent or an old case. N.B Dates are usually required for statutes.
You need to know the facts of a case in order to judge whether it applies to the particular situation you are dealing with. However, unless you are making a detailed comparison of the facts of a case and your particular question, in order to argue that the case should or could be distinguished, you should generally make only brief reference to facts, if at all – long descriptions of facts waste time and earn few (if any) marks.
2. Is there always a right answer?
In law exams, there is not usually a right or wrong answer. What matters is that you show you know what type of issues you are being asked about. Essay questions are likely to ask you to ‘discuss’, ‘criticise’, or ‘evaluate’, or ‘examine’. You simply need to produce a good range of factual and critical material in order to do this. Please do not reproduce large chucks of lecture notes! The lecturer will want to see evidence that you understand the topic you are writing about.
3. Answer the question asked
Over and over again, examiners complain that candidates do not answer the question they are asked – so if you can develop this skill, you will stand out from the crowd. You will get very few marks for simply writing all you know about a topic, with no attempt to address the issues raised in the question. If you can adapt the material that you have learnt on the subject to take into account the particular emphasis given to it by the question, you will do well. A good idea is to practise with past exam papers.
4. Plan your answer
Under the pressure of time, it is tempting to start writing immediately, but five minutes spent planning each essay question is well worth spending – it may mean that you write less overall, but the quality of your answer will almost certainly be better. The plan need not be elaborate: just jot down everything you feel is relevant to the answer, including case names, and then organise the material into a logical order appropriate to the question asked. It should go without saying that you should always start the essay with an introduction which sets out what you intend to cover in the essay and for what purpose.
This way the examiner will see that you have thought about the substantive issues in the question you have been asked.
5. Provide analysis and fact
Very few essay questions require merely factual descriptions of what the law is; you will almost always be required to analyse the factual content in some way, usually highlighting any problem or gaps in the law and suggesting possible reforms.
Your approach should be analytical and not merely descriptive but you are not obliged to criticise every provision you describe. Having said that, even if you do not agree with particular criticisms that you have read, you should still discuss them and say why you do not think they are valid. There is very little mileage in an essay that simply describes the law and says it is perfectly satisfactory. Descriptive essays such as these will provide you with very few marks. Do not be afraid to apply a (relevant) opinion of your own! This is your opportunity to discuss what you think is right or wrong with a particular topic. (However, do not be tempted to go on a personal rant about a particular issue.)
However good your material, you will gain marks if you structure it well. Making a plan for each answer will help in this, and you should also try to learn your material in a logical order – this will make it easier to remember as well. The exact construction of your essay will obviously depend on the question, but you should aim to have an introduction, then the main discussion, and a conclusion. Where a question is divided into two or more parts, you should reflect that structure in your answer.
A word about conclusions: it is not good enough just to repeat the question, turning it into a statement, for the conclusion. Your conclusion will often summarise the arguments that you have developed during the course of your essay.