Black letter law refers to areas of Law that consist mainly of technical rules, as opposed to areas of law that are defined more by a conceptual basis. Black letter law subjects include modules like tort law, criminal law, property law, etc. When it comes to examinations for these subjects they typically consist of problem questions and statement questions.
In a problem question, you would probably be given a legal scenario and be tasked with explaining what the legal outcome would/should be. For example, there might be only one issue you are addressing or a series of legal issues in one given scenario.
In a statement question, you may be asked to analyse and/or give your opinions on judgments and legal concepts. For example, ‘Would you agree that xyz statute has incrementally progressed over the years?’.
In an exam, you may have the choice to answer a number of questions picking how many you want to answer from the two types of questions. In this blog, I will be explaining how to approach problem questions.
The best way to approach problem statements as a beginner law student is the IRAC method: Issue, Rule, Application and Conclusion. This will allow you to give analytical answers that are clear and structured.
With an IRAC essay and problem questions in general, you do not have to write an introduction. You can go straight into answering the question – this is a key difference to statement questions.
For each of your points, you will start by stating the legal issues that arise in this scenario.
When writing an issue statement, you can say something like, ‘The issue that first arises is if/whether…’. Then, you would complete the sentence by identifying and stating the legal conclusion that needs to be reached. For example, ‘The issue is whether the defendant is criminally liable for xyz’.
After this, you would connect the issue statement to the relevant facts in the scenario. For example, ‘The defendant did xyz knowingly, therefore doing xyz to the claimant’.
After writing your issue statement, you should identify and explain the rules that apply in this scenario and will ultimately define the/your legal conclusion. The rule describes which law or test applies to this issue.
So, this is where you would draw on your primary and secondary sources knowledge to support your analysis. It should be stated as a general principle for the scenario and not as a conclusion to the scenario being analysed – at least not just yet.
After stating the legal issues and relevant rules, now it is time to provide the main body of your analysis. In the application part of your answer, this is where you will explain how the legal principles you mentioned can be applied to your scenario, demonstrating your understanding of the law.
In the application stage, you should constantly use key phrases from the legal principles mentioned. Do not worry about repeating your words – it is important to establish the connection.
You can also build the connection between the rules and your application by using connectives like ‘because’ and ‘since’. For example, ‘Here, the criminal can be considered independent of xyz because xyz…’ or ‘Since the defendant did xyz this breaks the causation chain of xyz’.
The key to application is not to simply regurgitate the rules but to successfully provide judgment based on the facts and rules.
When it comes to problem statements, there are two types of conclusions. The 1-2 sentences that conclude each issue explored and your final judgment.
In your brief conclusions, you can use one or two sentences to concisely state the outcome of the issue, based on the application of the rules to the facts of the case. For example, ‘Therefore, the defendant can be found criminally liable for xyz’.
In your final conclusion, you should first state your conclusion regarding each issue. Then, if applicable, you will provide your overall judgement. Like a normal essay, do not mention anything new that you have discussed (unless you perhaps forgot a point and are on a time crunch). Moreover, your conclusion should draw back to why you have come to this final judgment.
With answering these questions you should be assertive and plainly state your opinion. The journey to your judgment is the main part of your assessment, but it is your conclusion that brings your work together.
It is important to remember though that you will still get marks for your understanding and exploration of the law, so don’t feel discouraged if you don’t feel like you know the answer and answer to the best of your abilities. After all, the beauty of Law is subjectivity.
In some cases, you may find that you can not come to a final judgement because the scenario needs more information. You may also find that your judgment is conditional on certain things. It is fine to state as so, and perhaps that is the answer. In general, however, if you can, you should come to a final decision.
After deciding that the IRAC method is the best to use and before even starting to write your response, you should spend time deeply analysing the problem. You should go through the statement and identify which parts will be relevant to each component of IRAC.
It is advisable to use something like different highlighters to identify each component. Make sure you can identify each part of IRAC in the statement before you actually start writing your response.
Before using the IRAC method you need to analyse if that is the most appropriate method for your exam/essay.
The goal is that as you start to become more experienced and knowledgeable as a Law student, you won’t answer your questions as rigidly and use a method that best works to your abilities. However, you can still get a great grade using the IRAC method to the letter and is advised by many legal academics.
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