HOW TO ANSWER CASE-BASED QUESTIONS AND ESSAY QUESTION IN LAW
- How to Answer Case-based Questions
Case-based questions in law schools are intended to test your skill to identify and apply the relevant legal principles to a given hypothetical factual situation. The key to securing good marks in these papers is to: (a) demonstrate your knowledge of the relevant law by identifying the underlying legal issues beneath the layers of facts in a problem and (b) demonstrate your understanding of the law by applying the relevant law to the facts in question.
Such problem based questions set you a task. This is usually to advise a person or parties on their rights and liabilities (if any) in respect of the issues raised by the question. It is, therefore, important when answering such questions to ensure that you address the question and always complete this task. For example, ‘in conclusion’, you should always advise that person or parties in question on their rights and liabilities in respect of the specific issues raised by the problem. Sometimes, you are also asked to decide on a factual situation and explain it with appropriate reasoning and laws.
Planning your answer at the outset is particularly crucial because problem based questions more often entails a number of specific issues. It is also important to note that there is not necessarily a ‘right’ answer to such problems but there is a correct approach. One approach that students find helpful is to use the IRAC mnemonic by following the steps listed below.
- 1. Identify the legal issue(s)
- 2. Rule – define and explain the legal rule and/or principle
- Apply the rule/principle to the facts in question
- Conclusion which sums up the advice to the party/parties
 Identify the legal issue(s)
Identify clearly the factual issues on which advice is sought. This important stage in your answer involves identifying what the question is about from a legal point of view. As you are reading through the question you must take care to spot and make a note of these issues and any defences which may be available. At this point you might discover a party who has no recognizable legal claim or a claimant who does have a claim but who will have no legal remedy or reduced damages because the facts show that the defendant will be able to establish one of the defences. Each of the separate issues identified as you read through your examination paper should be isolated and dealt with separately in your answer.
Once you have decided on the questions from an examination paper that you intend to attempt, before you start writing out your answer, for each of these questions you should: (a) outline the issue/s and the loss/damage suffered in each case (b) identify the potential claimants and defendants and (c) list any defences that might be applicable. Not only will this approach give your answer a clear structure, it will also provide you with a helpful reference point as you work through your answer. This can be particularly helpful in an exam situation, where time management is important, to ensure that you don’t spend a disproportionate amount of your time on any one question.
 Rule – define and explain the legal rule and/or principle
Identify the principles of law which are relevant to the issue(s) and explain the legal principles, giving authority (case law or statute, as appropriate). Identifying the relevant law is a filtering process and this process should include discussion of any areas where the state of the law is in doubt. On the basis of this process any irrelevant law should be filtered out at this stage and only the law which is pertinent to your answer should be retained.
 Apply the rule/principle to the facts in question
The law must be applied to support your discussion. It is at this stage that you must focus on constructing a logical argument and make a sensible attempt to apply the law to the factual issues. At this stage you should also identify any additional factual information about the problem which a court would need to come to a firm conclusion.
You should conclude your answer with a short paragraph containing your advice. If you have worked through your answer in a logical order there will be no need for a lengthy conclusion. You should note that in summarizing the advice it will not usually be possible to come to a firm conclusion about the outcome of a dispute since there is likely to be additional factual information required. In some cases, the uncertain state of the law would make the outcome impossible to predict with certainty, even if all the factual information was available. You should distinguish clearly between areas of factual uncertainty and areas of legal uncertainty. Lengthy discussion of possible alternative factual scenarios will only be appropriate if necessary to explain different possible outcomes of the application of the relevant legal principles to the facts, otherwise such discussion will not earn marks but will instead be a waste of precious time.
Common errors in answering problem questions
- Failing to read the question properly During examinations many students underperform because, in their haste, they either fail to read the question correctly or to follow instructions.
- Telling ‘the story’ of the case In using case law authority, it is not usually necessary to tell ‘the story’ of the c Discussion of the facts of the cited case will only be relevant if the student wishes to point out that the facts are so similar to the case in question that it would seem impossible to distinguish them or, alternatively, if you wish to point to some difference between the two fact situations which makes it possible that the two could be distinguished.
- Failing to consider the position of all the parties in a dispute Issues should be explored from all sides and advising a particular party will involve considering the arguments which the opposing party or parties will employ.
- Restating the question Students sometimes lose precious time rewriting the facts in the question and if you find yourself doing this remember that you are not earning marks.
To become really competent at answering problem questions practice is essential. Like learning to ride a bicycle, to become really competent at answering problem questions you will need to practise: the more you do, the sooner it will become second nature to you. One of the most valuable ways of getting this practice is to prepare written answers to tutorial questions for use in class discussion.
- How to Answer Essay Questions
One of the mistakes students most frequently make when answering essay questions is failing to ensure they understand what the question is about. The law applies to a wide variety of different situations and the aim of an essay question will usually be to assess your knowledge and understanding of the way in which a specific aspect of the law has developed and evaluate its current position. Your understanding of any particular aspect of law will be demonstrated by:
- Outlining the history of the topic under discussion;
- Using relevant case law or statute to illustrate the key legal principles;
- Providing examples of how these principles have been interpreted in subsequent cases
- Illustrating any exceptions to the key legal principles;
- Making an evaluation the present state of the law, highlighting and areas of ambiguity in the current law;
- Considering arguments for alternative actions or possibilities using cases or journal articles to support these arguments.
It is important to note that whether answering an essay or a problem question in law there is rarely a ‘right answer’: there is simply a right approach. The right approach is to present sufficient and relevant information in a clearly structured and well expressed manner with proper referencing of sources. With an essay, it is not always a lack of knowledge that lets a student down – quite often, it is a lack of structure in the arguments and a failure to support the discussion with relevant authority that is the main problem. Therefore, in order to obtain maximum benefit from your study of law, it is very important to develop good essay writing skills to enable you demonstrate your knowledge and understanding.