Writing Legal Studies Essays

In HSC Legal Studies, scaffolding aka “writing an essay skeleton” is a quick way to draft the most important points of an HSC Legal Studies essays into an easy to remember structure that you can whip up in under 30 mins.

Why would you do this?

Because it means you can write, technically, several essay scaffolds in the time you would usually take to write one full essay! Which means you are revising much more content.

Of course, when you do this, you miss out on important essay-writing honing skills. But the point of a scaffold is in the content-revision. It’s the perfect way to practice content for Legal Studies!

To explain how you can use scaffolds to write HSC Legal Studies essays, I’ll be using the Core: Crime, as everyone will study this. And you can apply this any way to your own electives.

There are 5 steps, and we will work through this question together:

Assess the effectiveness of the criminal justice system when dealing with young offenders.

Are Your Notes Up to Scratch?

If you need reliable notes or simply want to check your notes are right, take a look at HSC-Notes.com.

Their Legal notes are crafted by the 99+ ATAR Club and provide concise answers to the HSC Syllabus dot points with what you need to know for your exams. Diagrams, mind maps, tables, dot points, paragraphs, sources are included to aid your learning.

With these notes you can spend less time rewriting your textbook and worrying about whether your notes answer the syllabus dot points correctly and spend more time learning and practicing your skills knowing your notes are accurate and concise.

Head on over to HSC-Notes to get your HSC subject notes now

1. Analyse question

“What are the buzzwords in the question?”

The first thing we need to do is highlight the buzzwords in the question (which you’ve written at the top of your scaffold). So below, I have bolded these.

Assess the effectiveness of the criminal justice system when dealing with young offenders.

These are the key points you will be assessed in. You need to be:

  • Assessing: evaluating how good or bad something is
  • The effectiveness: how efficient
  • The criminal justice system is: the law (government legislation, courts, police, etc.)
  • When dealing with young offenders: the legal processes a young offender will come into contact with

Therefore, your essay will need to be an evaluation of the way the law handles young offender, and will need to have a stance on whether or not this is efficient, or a detrimental/slow/backwards journey.

Looking to the syllabus, we know this information is under “5. Young Offenders”. Which are the following points:

  1. Age of criminal responsibility
  2. The rights of children when questioned or arrested
  3. Children’s Court
  4. Penalties for children
  5. Alternatives to court

 

2. Thesis

“What is your personal response to the question?”

So given that we will be talking about those 5 syllabus points from above, which you should by now have a firm grasp of, you should be able to answer: How would you describe the way the law deals with young offenders?

There is not one correct answer. You will be marked on how you argue your point of view.

For the sake of this example, we will use one possible thesis:

The criminal justice system does provide some effective and relevant concessions for young offenders. However, due to its focus on incarceration and punishment rather than on preventative measures, the criminal justice system is only somewhat effective in dealing with young offenders.

This should be written at your top of your scaffold, under Thesis.

3. Argument

“How will you structure the body of your essay so that you can prove your thesis?”

This means organising your ideas into themes. Usually, in Crime, you should be tackling 3-5 of these “themes”.

For example, this question could be organised as such:

  1. Age of criminal responsibility
  2. Questioning and Arrest
  3. Bail
  4. Court proceedings

These are 4 major ways in which the criminal justice system deals with young offenders. There are many variations, but this one works ‘linearly’, as it is the process a juvenile offender would face.

Each of these act as the theme of a paragraph (or two!) under which you will place information and your explanations.

4. Insert CML

“What Cases, Media, and Legislation (C.M.L) do I have that support my argument?”

It is time to insert all the content and information you have been learning into your essay scaffold. This is when you should read through all the information you have on the syllabus points we identified previously, in order to back up your point of view.

You should briefly dot-point in the citations for that CML you have, and the quote or piece of information.

This is a scaffold, so it does not need to be a full citation. For example, for the first paragraph/theme we found, it would be as follows:

1. Age of criminal responsibility

  • Children (Criminal Proceedings) Act 1987 (NSW)
  • Corey Davis Case
  • UN Convention on the Rights of the Child
  • Senior NSW Children’s Court Magistrate Stephen Scarlett: “children today are better educated and more sophisticated than their counterparts in rural Britain in 1769” ((Jacobsen, SMH April 2012)
  • “Children who commit serious crimes go unpunished” (Juvenile Justice – NSW Parliamentary Research Service)

 

These will serve as the basis for each paragraph, or idea that you write about. Remember, this is a scaffold, so it’s about organising content and writing a skeleton for your essay.

 

5. Explain CML

“How do I explain why these Cases, Media and Legislation are relevant to my argument?”

Under each dot point, I like to include a short sentence which explains why you’ve included that piece of CML. This isn’t usually required in essay skeletons and many people leave it out, but for me, it’s the most important part.

Why?

Because just throwing in CML won’t give you marks. It’s all about your using your own mind to create an argument. HSC markers look for this. So these little sentences are the ‘meat’ of your scaffold!

Sure, you could leave them out. But that for me is an incomplete scaffold.

So this is what I like to end up with:

1. Age of criminal responsibility

  • Children (Criminal Proceedings) Act 1987 (NSW)
    • Children under the age of 10 are presumed too young to form mens rea and thus to commit a crime. This is known as doli incapax, which is rebuttable for those up to the age of 14 under the Children. Gives relevant concession to children.
  • Corey Davis Case
    • Proves converging moral perspectives/contention exists regarding the age of criminal responsibility.
  • UN Convention on the Rights of the Child
    • Australia is a signatory, and our legislation tries to align with these common principles.
  • Senior NSW Children’s Court Magistrate Stephen Scarlett: “children today are better educated and more sophisticated than their counterparts in rural Britain in 1769” ((Jacobsen, SMH April 2012)
    • Suggests out-dated Australian laws regarding juvenile offenders.
  • “Children who commit serious crimes go unpunished” (Juvenile Justice – NSW Parliamentary Research Service)
    • Our laws regarding juvenile offenders could be too relaxed.

 

So in full, the finished scaffold for your HSC Legal Studies Essays should look something like this:

Consider Buying Notes

If you need reliable notes or simply want to check your notes are right, take a look at HSC-Notes.com.

Their Legal notes are crafted by the 99+ ATAR Club and provide concise answers to the HSC Syllabus dot points with what you need to know for your exams. Diagrams, mind maps, tables, dot points, paragraphs, sources are included to aid your learning.

With these notes you can spend less time rewriting your textbook and worrying about whether your notes answer the syllabus dot points correctly and spend more time learning and practicing your skills knowing your notes are accurate and concise.

Head on over to HSC-Notes to get your HSC subject notes now

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Sophia Zou recently completed the HSC in 2013, so fortunately for AOS Community Blog-readers and perhaps less fortunately for her, the memories of Year 12 are still fresh in her head. Sophia considers it her mission here to help students make the most of their final years at high school. Her interests include political science, Simon and Garfunkel, and pretending to be a tea aficionado. Alongside tutoring at Art of Smart Education, she spends her time playing the piano and studying Government & IR and Languages at the University of Sydney.

 

 

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Prelude

Due to the interest in my Modern History essay guide, I have decided to come up with one for Legal Studies. Most people will notice that it is similar to my modern one – that is because essays for both of these subjects are similar in style and approach.

As a general note, this guide is mainly designed for students who are struggling with essay writing. However, I have added a section with some advanced techniques for students who are looking to improve from a low band 6 to a high band 6.

In this example, I will use the practice question “How effective is the law in responding to problems in family relationships”

General point’s

Language

Never EVER write in first person - this is the cardinal sin of legal essay writing. Markers hate this and you will lose marks if you use first person.

Also, always use formal language and avoid colloquialisms and clichés. Whilst most people know this, some colloquialisms are difficult to pick up on. For example, the word “things” as in “Hence, these things demonstrate that....” is an example of colloquial language.

Pay careful attention to your grammar. Although it isn’t marked directly, good grammar adds to the clarity and readability of your response. Poor grammar on the other hand can prevent you from effectively conveying your ideas to the marker. If your response hasn’t been effectively communicated, then you will lose marks. As such, poor grammar can indirectly cost you marks.

Arguments

Don’t make your arguments emotional or personal. HSC markers have no emotions - they will not respond to bleeding heart essays. They respond to logical analysis supported by fact and legislation/cases/media reports (LCMR).

The holy grail of essay writing is balancing clarity and simplicity with a sophisticated argument. An argument which has great depth and complexity is much easier to understand if you write it clearly and in a well organised and structured manner. You don’t want the marker to have to read over your paragraphs a few times because your argument isn’t clear.

Practice

With essays, practice makes perfect. Writing practice essays can greatly help improve your essay writing skills. In year 10, essay writing was my weakest area, but by the end of year 12 it was my strongest as I constantly wrote practice essays and had them marked by my teachers.

Whilst it may seem obvious, having them marked is of vital importance, as the feedback is what helps you identify areas in need of improvement. Writing an essay and not having it marked is near useless in my view.

Time management

You should be aiming to write approximately 1,000 words (roughly 8 pages) for the options essays and about 600 words for the Crime response. These numbers aren’t absolute, but rather a ballpark figure. I would say that 750 words and 350 words are the respective limits for both these responses. Any shorter then this and the lack of quantity will reduce the quality of your response.

Don’t spend all your time on one section of the paper whilst neglecting the others. Some students devote all their time to one essay and not enough on the other. It is better to get 20/25 in all sections then to get 25/25 on one section and only 10/25 for the other. Also remember, it is easier to improve an essay from 10/25 to 20/25 then it is to go from 20/25 to 25/25.

Time management is essential with the Legal exam. You are required to write around 2,600 words in three hours plus answer a small series of multiple choice and short answer questions. You need to ensure that you are not spending too much time on any one section.

Answering the question

The most common mistake which legal students make when writing essays is that they don’t answer the question. When writing essays, many people merely give a description of how the legal system operates as opposed to critically evaluating it. By providing a description, you are unlikely to get above a band 4 as you are not answering the question. To quote from the 2011 Notes from the Legal marking centre “In weaker responses, candidates tended to make general statements and were very descriptive rather than analytical.”

In a Legal essay (and all essays for that matter) there isn’t a right or wrong argument. A marker cannot deduct marks from you because they disagree with your argument. What they are looking for is whether you develop a sustained and logical argument, supported by factual evidence and LCMRs.

At uni, I wrote an essay for criminal law and the marker dedicated a whole page in his comments to saying how much he disagreed with my argument. However, when giving me my marks he stated "Even though I vehemently disagree with your thesis, this is irrelevant for the purpose of determining your marks"

Another important point is that you should NEVER take a pre-prepared or memorised essay into the exam. Unlike English or SOR, it’s near impossible to mold your essay to the exam question (unless the topics are very similar, which is unlikely). Even if your pre-prepared response is from the same syllabus point as a question on the exam, it will still be difficult to mold your response unless the questions are asking you to do virtually the same thing.

To quote from the 2009 Comments from the Legal Marking centre “Some candidates presented what seemed to be prepared responses that did not answer the question. Stronger responses referred directly to the question, quickly engaged with the complexities of the law and did not waste time with simplistic definitions.”

Structure

With legal and all essays in general, structure is extremely important. However, most students don’t use it at all. An essay with strong analysis and factual evidence will struggle to get a band 5 if it is poorly structured. Generally speaking, an essay should be structured like this:

Introduction

You state what position you are taking in relation to the question (otherwise known as your thesis statement). For example “The legal system is highly effective at responding to problems within family relationships”

You also must state the reasons/points for your position. These points will form the basis for each section in the body of the essay. For example “The effectiveness of the law can clearly be seen in relation to its handling of familial problems such as divorce, domestic violence and child abuse”

In a legal essay on the HSC, you should aim to have around 3 to 4 points/reasons (5 is excessive, however if you can get enough detail in then it will probably benefit you).

Body

In the body, you discuss in detail the reasons/points which support your argument. You devote each section (usually a single paragraph) of the body to dealing with ONE point/reason. For example, in the practice essay, you would dedicate one paragraph to divorce, domestic violence and child abuse.

Your paragraphs in the body of the essay should have topic/linking sentences. A topic sentence goes at the beginning of each paragraph when you are introducing a new point/reason. It should give the marker a preview of what you are going to discuss in that paragraph. For example “The Law is highly effective at addressing the issue of domestic violence”

Linking sentences on the other hand go at the end of a paragraph where you are concluding a point/reason. They need to link your ideas in a paragraph back to the question, for example “Hence, the enforceability of legal mechanisms aimed at addressing domestic violence emphasises the effectiveness of the law in this area.” You will notice that linking sentences are similar to topic sentences. That’s because a paragraph/section is meant to be somewhat circular in nature, as it begins and ends with one point which supports your argument.

These sentences are really easy to add to your essays, and can boost your marks significantly.

PEEEL

One good method of structuring internal body paragraphs is the PEEEL method. There are a few different variations of this method out there, but most are extremely similar. This is how it was taught to me:

P - Point (Topic sentence)
E - Explain (Explain your point with fact)
E - Elaborate (Elaborate on your facts to form an analysis)
E - Example (Provide an example to support your explanation and elaboration. Usually in Legal Studies, this is where you might use LCMR)
L - Link (Linking sentence)

It is important to note that this is just one method of structuring body paragraphs – you don’t have to use this method. Personally, I rarely ever used this technique, as I preferred a more free flowing design for my paragraphs. However, it is an excellent method to employ if you are struggling to put body paragraphs together, which is a common problem for many people.

Conclusion

In the conclusion, you sum up your argument. You restate your thesis and your points/reasons in order to show the marker that you have proved your argument.

It is important to note that no new ideas should be introduced at this point in your essay.

Legislation/Cases/Media reports (LCMR)

LCRM is an important aspect of any legal response. However, whilst many people incorporate them into their responses, they often fail to use them properly.

LCMR’s should primarily be used to provide SUPPORT for your analysis. Legislation and cases specifically can also be used to demonstrate a point of law (i.e. The case Williams v R (1986) states that a person cannot be arrested solely for the purposes of investigation).

When using LCMR, you need to clearly explain how they support your argument, as opposed to merely listing them (unless they are being used to demonstrate a point of law as above). Throwing LCMR into your essay won’t gain you any marks.

Furthermore, if you only describe LCMRs related to the question you will fail to score beyond a band 4, because you aren’t providing the markers with your own analysis. To quote again from the 2009 Notes from the legal marking centre “The better responses from both questions referred to a range of recent cases and reflected sound planning of their response rather than simply providing a description of various issues, examples, sources, acts and cases.”

To sum up, with LCMR, it’s all about how you use them to support your answer, not how many you can fit into the essay. In other words QUALITY NOT QUANTITY

Crime response

Essentially, the crime response is a smaller version of the options essays. It should take roughly the same form (i.e. Introduction, Body and conclusion).

The Board of Studies recommends that this section be approximately 600 words (4 pages) in length.

The main point of difference between the options essays and the crime response is obviously the level of detail. In the crime response, you need to be very “to the point” and get to your answer quickly, in contrast to the options essays where you can analyse in more depth.

However, the crime response usually has a more narrow scope then the options essays, which means that you can afford to be more “to the point” in crime.

Again to quote from the 2011 Notes from the Legal marking centre “Candidates were able to access full marks within this four-page length. Candidates who wrote long responses ran the risk of lacking focus and not presenting a sustained, logical and cohesive response as required by the rubric.”

Advanced essay writing techniques

In order to access the higher marks (i.e. 23+/25); you need to show the markers a highly sophisticated and well sustained argument. In order to do this, there are a variety of techniques which can be employed. Two techniques which can be used will be discussed further below.

In my view, achieving a 24 or 25 in an essay is extremely difficult and requires a high level of proficiency in both the course content and essay writing.
As such, writing practice responses and having them marked is highly important in developing the level of proficiency needed to achieve these marks in an essay.

Counter-arguments

A counter argument refers to a technique where a writer includes and discusses evidence/opinions which disagree with their thesis and then shows why they are deficient or incorrect.

For example “According to the article “Divorce”, the law effectively addresses the issue of divorce because of X. However, this view is deficient because it fails to consider Y”. Obviously, this is a highly simplified example and you would probably need a little bit more detail in an essay.

The use of this technique adds a great deal of sophistication to an essay and can make your essays stand out to the markers. This is because it demonstrates that you have highly developed analytical skills and a strong understanding of the course, as you are able to identify flaws in certain arguments and counter them.

Thesis, anti-thesis, synthesis

This refers to a technique where two contradictory views are examined in detail. Following this, the writer will then suggest a new point which combines both these views.

For example “The case A vs. B demonstrates that the law is highly effective in relation to domestic violence due to enforceability. However, the article C shows that the law can be ineffective in this area due to a lack of accessibility. Henceforth, it can therefore be argued that the law is of mixed effectiveness in relation to the issue of domestic violence”. Again, this is a highly simplified example and you would need a far greater deal of sophistication in a real essay.

Similar to the use of counter-arguments, this technique can also make your essays stand out to a marker. This is because it demonstrates that you have a deep enough understanding of the course to be able to form your own view from two separate and distinct arguments.

Questions

If anyone has any questions about this guide, legal essay writing or the subject in general, please feel free to send me a PM or make a post in this thread (I'll try to check it regularly). Also, if anyone thinks that I've missed anything or wants to add something, feel free to post your suggestions.

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