Background: from 'research methods' to 'advanced legal research and law reform'

Following a review of the LLB programme in the mid-1990s, students at Leeds were required to take a 10-credit module in Research Methods (RM) in the second year of the degree. A core aim of the module was to help prepare students for the compulsory final-year dissertation. To this end students were asked to devise a proposal for a 'research project' consisting of a title, key research questions, an outline of the research approach and methods necessary to answer them, and an indicative bibliography. However, the link between RM and the dissertation proved problematic for a number of reasons. RM had to be independently assessed in order to contribute 10 credits to Year 2 of the programme. While the proposal could form the basis of the dissertation, an empirical project would be unlikely to be feasible within the time and resource constraints of an undergraduate dissertation, and the school could not guarantee supervisory capacity for the topic. There were other problems with this early version of RM. For example, students tended to choose the same popular topics, within years and between years, leading to cases of suspected copying and plagiarism. The module was criticized by external examiners who were sceptical that a proposal for a research project could really be assessed independently of its implementation. Finally, the module title was arguably inaccurate and misleading. The focus on developing a research proposal in the assessment did not allow sufficient opportunity for students to acquire in-depth understanding of research methods in the accepted social science sense.

Acknowledging these difficulties, the module was redesigned for the 2005-2006 session with a more explicit focus on empirical research methods and a greater emphasis on specifically socio-legal research. The direct link with the final-year dissertation was broken (though the development of research skills relevant to the dissertation remained a key aim) and the form of assessment changed. Students could choose one among seven topic fields (the law relating to gypsies and travelling people; the effects of employment law and regulations on small businesses; the law relating to co-habitation; the awareness on the part of legal professionals of the Human Rights Act 1998; the law relating to prostitution; the impact of judicial review on administrative decision-making; and the law relating to religious discrimination). In their chosen field, students were asked: (a) to provide a brief overview of the range and type of existing legal and socio-legal research, including a select bibliography of not more than ten key references, explaining how the search for relevant sources was carried out; and (b) to design either a quantitative or a qualitative research study related to the topic. As part of the latter, students were required to explain key research questions and the research methods intended to be used in addressing them, and to consider any political and ethical aspects that might arise in the conduct of the research.

This version of RM was clearly an improvement in more effectively introducing students to social research methods, and also addressed some of the problems of repetition and suspected collusion associated with its predecessor. However, the module was unpopular due to the low perceived relevance of social research to the 'real' subject matter of a law degree. The element of artificiality continued in the requirement that students design an empirical research project which they knew they would never have to carry out, and using skills they thought they would never have to use in their further academic study or in their careers as lawyers.

For the academic year 2006-2007 the module was revised again with a different philosophy. The emphasis shifted to equipping students with the critical skills necessary to evaluate the arguments of academic writers, drawing on qualitative/quantitative research in specific journal articles selected as 'case studies' in the use of socio-legal research methods. For the assessment, students were required to read Quick (2006). Students were asked, with reference to materials studied in the module: (a) to explain the approach adopted by the author to the subject, and evaluate the research methods employed in the empirical study described in the article; and (b) to evaluate the author's use of empirical data and argument in relation to those data.

This move to a 'critical consumer' model, away from the more traditional social science approach involving research project design, was regarded by the teaching team as a significant step forward. The problem of the artificiality of the earlier assessment exercise was avoided and a better justification of the relevance of the module established. The aim was now to promote a critical understanding of how socio-legal researchers use empirical research methods to investigate the operation of law and legal institutions 'in society'. The module would (it was hoped) increase awareness of the study of law beyond legal rules and doctrine, help develop critical skills, and broaden the range of sources students might use in conducting independent research in preparation for writing extended essays and their dissertation in the final year.

Further experimentation followed in academic year 2007-2008. The adequacy of existing law was subjected to scrutiny, and the emphasis placed on the range of legal/socio-legal methodologies and approaches adopted by legal academics in contributing to law reform debates in fields such as family law, employment law and consumer law. Seminars drew on a range of materials distinguishing: (a) black-letter analysis and arguments for law reform directed at increasing doctrinal coherence, whether through the common law or legislation; (b) the use of empirical data (qualitative and/or quantitative) in support of arguments for policy or legal reform; and (c) comparative legal research suggesting solutions to similar problems drawing on the experience of other jurisdictions. Given the practice of skills associated with the doctrinal approach in substantive law modules throughout the degree, the main focus was on empirical and comparative legal research. For the assessment, students were required to write an essay, critically evaluating the use made in published research of either empirical methods or comparative legal methods in contemporary debates on law reform in one of a limited number of fields: child trafficking in connection with prostitution; legal aid; contact between children and non-resident parents; and religious discrimination.

This iteration of RM represented an advance over earlier versions in linking different critical approaches to the study of law with arguments for legal reform. However, it was also considered a step backwards in the dilution of the focus on empirical research methods. In retrospect, the attempt to introduce students to comparative methodology at this stage in their academic careers was premature. It was also felt that, while there were benefits in increasing the scope for students to demonstrate independent research in their chosen field, something had been lost in the move away from the requirement critically to evaluate one or two carefully selected case-study articles.

Building on this experience, a new module was approved for academic year 2008-2009. The transition from the earlier focus on social research methods to the present emphasis on socio-legal research and law reform was reflected in the new module title Advanced Legal Research and Law Reform (ALRLR).

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