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Discussion and conclusion

Following a lengthy period of experimentation, the ALRLR module in its present form is more or less established as part of the LLB at Leeds. In summary, the module has evolved through four phases with different aims:

  • • As originally envisaged, RM sought to equip students with skills necessary for devising a research proposal in preparation for their final-year dissertation.
  • • In the second phase students were encouraged to carry out independent research in one of a number of fields of socio-legal studies, and to devise a research proposal using empirical methods in their chosen field.
  • • Phase 3 saw the introduction of the critical consumer model, in which the aim shifted to equipping students with 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.
  • • The final step in the development of ALRLR builds on this core requirement of critical evaluation, but with specific reference to the use made by the authors of empirical research in arguments contributing to contemporary socio-legal debates including those on law reform.

The evolution has been far from unproblematic, and the module might have been abandoned at various times over the past ten years due to a range of factors including student dissatisfaction, lack of staff engagement and concerns about the negative impact on National Student Survey. There is no doubt that the publication of the Nuffield Report in 2006 and the increasing interest in broadening the scope of the law curriculum have reinforced the school's commitment to retaining an element of social research methods training in the degree programme. While ALRLR is undergoing further development and there is work still to do in convincing some students of its value and relevance, there are encouraging signs that the investment in time and resources is being rewarded: recent feedback from students has been more positive; external examiners have been enthusiastic; there has been a consistently high proportion of first-class marks in the last three years; and most recently, assessment of seminars has transformed the experience of teaching the module and resulted in an apparently improved experience for students.

The absence of examples of established practice either within the UK or internationally on which to draw continues to be a major problem. At the time of writing, Leeds is unusual if not unique in requiring LLB students to take a compulsory course incorporating socio-legal methods in their second year. The development of the module has been a matter of trial and error, with a number of (what have turned out to be) wrong turnings. A related difficulty has been the lack of suitable teaching materials. While there are excellent introductory books exploring the nature of socio-legal studies (Travers, 2010), and some books dealing specifically with aspects of research methods for law (McConville and Hong Chui, 2007), there appears to be nothing suited to the particular requirements of ALRLR. For our purposes, the problem with established texts on social research methods (e.g. Punch, 1999; Burns, 2000; May, 2001; Bryman, 2008; Kalof et al. 2008) is that they are written for a social science audience, and do not include socio-legal examples or address the crucial nature of the relationship between empirical and doctrinal research.[1]

There is also the continuing difficulty of striking a balance between the emphasis on social research methods and the substance of socio-legal analysis in the areas studied. As has been seen, the main purpose of the module is to equip students with transferable skills which are repeatedly practised in relation to selected case-study fields both in seminars and in the assessment. The rationale for the focus on negligence, contract and administrative law is that students should be familiar with the doctrinal aspects of these core areas from the first year, and should be receptive to a socio-legal approach which complements their black-letter knowledge of law. The assumption is that students will naturally be interested in questions such as whether and how business people use contract law in practice; whether there exists in Britain a damaging compensation culture with too many negligence claims; and whether bureaucratic decision-making conforms to the lawyer's ideal of administrative justice. However, the idea that students acquire a basic understanding in Year 1 which they carry into Year 2 has in many cases proved over-optimistic. More fundamentally, the separation of doctrinal and sociolegal knowledge implicit in this model of undergraduate legal education is debatable, raising the question of whether it might be better to incorporate a socio-legal element into substantive subjects from the outset. While sociolegal methodology might be regarded ideally as forming just one part of a more general socio-legal approach to the study of law, the opportunities for such study are limited by the constraints of the undergraduate curriculum, which remains overwhelmingly doctrinal. Against this background, a module which necessarily concentrates on methodological issues cannot expect to generate much interest in a broader socio-legal approach, although each year it seems to have this beneficial effect on some students.

Various challenges will need to be met in consolidating the achievements of ALRLR to date. An important factor in the school's re-commitment to the module in 2007-2008 was the willingness of established staff with appropriate socio-legal experience to teach it. As has been seen, we consider it essential that teaching is undertaken by staff with legal backgrounds who have conducted empirical research in their own fields. However, course delivery remains heavily dependent on the input of two or three senior academics with such experience. There is a general reluctance of staff to become involved in teaching on the module, despite its acknowledged importance as a compulsory element in Year 2 of the LLB programme. It is vital that lessons learned from the development of ALRLR from its origins in RM are not lost, and that a critical mass of appropriately qualified and motivated staff is developed and maintained.

There is also a need for further fine-tuning and experimentation. The module's present structure and content have been the result of a number of compromises. For example, one drawback with the critical consumer model and associated assessment is that students are confined to critiquing a limited range of articles, and do not have the opportunity to undertake research in a topic area of their own choosing. This limitation is avoided only to some extent through incorporation of an element in the assessment addressing the 'contribution of the research (described in the article) to the understanding of law in the given field'. Many students find this aspect of the assessment difficult, probably because of fundamental problems in seeing the relevance of socio-legal research. Nor can it be claimed that ALRLR leads on to the dissertation in the same way as would a module requiring students to undertake independent research in preparing a dissertation proposal. Another problem with the current model is that that an author's presentation of empirical research in a journal article tends to provide only limited information on the research methods employed in a prior empirical study. The consequence is that much of the evaluation can only be speculative and must take the form of identifying conditions that would need to have been satisfied in order (for example) for the research to be considered ethical, or for the data to be regarded as reliable or dependable. We might get round this problem by using research reports, which include greater detail on research methods, in place of journal articles as the subject matter for evaluation. But this would undercut the objective of developing skills in evaluating socio-legal arguments that draw on empirical research, which are transferable and enhance the capacity for 'critical reading' in the remainder of the degree programme.

A final limitation of the critical consumer approach to empirical sociolegal skills training is that any article published in a peer-reviewed academic journal is unlikely to be methodologically incompetent. Given the absence of obvious 'mistakes', there is a limit in the extent to which an evaluation can be expected to be critical. On the other hand, there is no research design that could not be improved by more time and resources, and the evaluation exercise in its present form has succeeded in developing students' understanding of how the range and quality of empirical socio-legal research is inevitably hampered to some degree by such practical constraints.

Although the majority of law students at Leeds continue to base their final- year dissertations on what might be described as 'doctrinal' subject matter, a significant minority choose topics which require at least some discussion of 'law in society', and a number of dissertations are genuinely socio-legal. The generally high standard of dissertations suggests that even the more resistant students develop through ALRLR useful transferable skills, for example in searching databases and reviewing scholarly literature, and in engaging with a wide range of source material. The module also provides students with the opportunity to practise critical skills, both in oral contributions to seminars and in writing for the assignment, in a form that does not exist elsewhere in the curriculum. Beyond this, we hope that Leeds students will complete the module with a greater appreciation that the study of law can embrace both doctrinal and non-doctrinal approaches, and that socio-legal research has a distinctive contribution to make to the better understanding of law and its further development and reform.

  • [1] On the relationship between legal and socio-legal method more generally, see, however,Dobinson and Johns (2007); Salter and Mason (2007).
 
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