Ethical issues

The undertaking of empirical legal research undoubtedly requires students to have an understanding of the ethical issues of research. Indeed, even if not undertaking their own empirical research, it is something that students should understand in taking a critical approach to all research. In another context - that of professional practice of lawyers - ethics is also an important subject to which students may be introduced at an undergraduate level. The questionnaire indicated ethics being taught across eight different modules, primarily in dissertation-training or methods modules, but there were also three responses that indicated that, even within a methods module, no ethics were being taught. In leading the discussion on this at the seminar, Julian Webb suggested that ethics was 'Cinderella's Cinderella subject'.

There were a number of potential reasons for this:

  • • the doctrinal bias of the undergraduate curriculum;
  • • the emphasis on research-informed teaching not research-based learning and teaching;
  • • a lack of awareness of/ambivalence towards socio-legal research ethics;
  • • resource issues driven by the 'massification' of law schools, including the move to optional dissertations;
  • • a lack of appropriate texts and materials;
  • • the chilling effect of university research ethics committee procedures.

This last point provoked some discussion of the very varied practices between different institutions, and the overemphasis on some of the science-based model of ethics approval. It was felt, however, that there are ways to introduce and engage students in ethical issues. These included making students more reflective of their own and their lecturers' practices in class, for example, considering how asking different questions of students about personal experiences would make them feel, writing rules for class discussions about matters that might raise sensitive issues, asking students to right rules about how to be respectful and confidential. This then has the potential to widen to debates about research practices that may be unethical.

The Socio-Legal Studies module at Bristol, described by Morag McDermont, Bronwen Morgan and David Cowan in their chapter, includes a focus on research ethics. They seek to ensure that their students:

understand ethical compliance as something much broader and more important than researchers merely protecting themselves against either claims of unethical behaviour or the risk of withdrawal of funding from institutions that do not have ethical review procedures in place. (p. 28)

The seminar is 'intended to develop critical thinking about the role research ethics can, should and does play in shaping research into the law and powerful legal actors' p. 28). They suggest that this is an area where there is much useful literature. Indeed, at the seminar, Julian Webb pointed to a useful article written by Mark Israel and Ian Hay of Flinders University, Adelaide, 'Good ethical practice in empirical research in law'.[1]

  • [1] Available on the UKCLE website:
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