Introduction to legal research

4. Common research-based assignments

There are three common research-based law assignments: the problem-based scenario, the law reform proposal, and the research essay. The type of assignment you are working on will impact your research strategy, including which legal sources you will consult.

Problem-based scenario

A typical problem-based assignment will provide you with a set of facts and a problem, and ask you to advise your client. When researching this assignment you will focus on finding and applying the legal rules ('authorities'). Secondary sources may be used as a reference point, but are unlikely to be heavily cited.

Example

Robert Smith was ‘king hit’ on the back of his head while on the premises of the Santa Lucia Hotel by Mr Hyde, an excessively drunken patron in an unprovoked attack. Robert is currently in hospital fighting for his life. Advise the hotel proprietors whether they are liable for not taking reasonable care to protect Robert Smith from the attack.

Law reform proposal

A typical law reform assignment will ask you to analyse an existing area of law and make recommendations on how to improve the law or to discuss the merits of a proposed change to the law. Law reform assignments are some of the most research-intensive assignments, requiring the use of legislative materials, case law and secondary sources. Law reform research is strongly comparative: you will often need to look to other jurisdictions to see how they have dealt with a particular legal issue or problem.

Example

The Queensland Government is considering removing the partial defence of provocation — outlined in 304 of the Criminal Code — citing the need for the Code to reflect "community standards". Discuss the purpose and history of the defence; its elements; and discuss the advantages and disadvantages of removing the defence from Queensland law.

Essay

Essays can be comparative, argumentative, or discursive. The research component of a legal essay will depend to a great extent on the exact nature of the topic. Essays are more likely to rely on secondary sources than problem-based assignments. 

Example

In Australia, judges are appointed by the government instead of through elections, as occurs in some US jurisdictions. Compare and contrast the two systems of appointing judges. What are the strengths and weaknesses in both approaches in promoting judicial independence?