Empirical research

How do we use these perspectives? Let us take empirical socio-legal research as an example (though the techniques can be adapted to any methodology). A good starting-point is to introduce students to model examples - for example, Belinda Fehlberg's (1997) work on undue influence mentioned above or that of Anne Barlow and her colleagues (2005) on cohabitants' understandings of their property rights. Students can use the findings simply for what they reveal about the statistics, attitudes and experiences of the respondents, but a tutorial or coursework exercise could develop their skills by, for example, asking them to consider how much the data and analysis in the chosen body of research have influenced judgments or policy documents such as Law Commission reports (e.g. Law Commission, 2007). Not only does this help students see the impact (or otherwise) of socio-legal work, it may also expose judicial propensities for deciding cases on the basis of unevidenced assertions about social attitudes or realities (for example, Potter P's remarks on marriage in Wilkinson v Kitzinger (No 2) [2006]),[1] a revelation that should impel students to question the objectivity of law-making. Since students may often 'feel' that judges are out of touch with reality, this kind of comparison will give them the evidence we are always asking them to provide for their beliefs and feelings.

A second way that model articles can be used is to draw attention to the methodological issues in undertaking this kind of research. Such a consideration will be imperative if you or your students entertain any idea that they themselves might do some empirical work, but it is also a useful exercise in its own right. Of course in a substantive law subject this can only be done in the most basic fashion, but it will hone their analytical skills and introduce them to a methodology they may wish to develop further in a dissertation or postgraduate work. For example, students could consider how representative any given sample of interviewees might be and how questions are devised to answer the particular research questions of the project. They must be made aware of ethical issues such as the impact on interviewees of asking questions of a personal nature and the need for confidentiality and anonymity. An apparently neutral question about property distribution on the breakdown of a relationship, for instance, might cause distress to an interviewee who has suffered such a breakdown; something on mortgages might upset a person whose home has been repossessed. Students will take note of the technique used by Barlow and many others of asking their target sample to comment on hypothetical fact situations which effectively distance the question from personal experience.

From analysing the methodological considerations it is but a short step to actually doing a small piece of survey research. The pioneering work of our colleagues at Sheffield[2] and Greenwich - where students' findings from a coursework task on property allocation on relationship breakdown were actually used by the Law Commission in its study - demonstrate that survey research undertaken by students may produce genuinely useful results. There are several property law issues your students could investigate (and you would doubtless choose whatever is current) but much depends on your cohort: a question on home ownership might be inappropriate in an area where people mostly rent, and if most of your students live in halls there will be a limited sample of relevant people they can interview. The task of drawing up hypothetical fact situations could be a class exercise, which incidentally has the merit of letting students see what it is like for lecturers to write problem questions for tutorials or exams (the next step, of course, is for them to mark them) and may well have the effect of sharpening up their own problem-solving skills.

  • [1] 'It is apparent that the majority of people, or at least of governments, not only inEngland but Europe-wide, regard marriage as an age-old institution, valued and valuable,respectable and respected, as a means not only of encouraging monogamy but also theprocreation of children and their development and nurture in a family unit (or “nuclearfamily") in which both maternal and paternal influences are available in respect of theirupbringing.' (para. 118)
  • [2] See Potter and Williams (2007) and the discussion in Chapter 4, above.
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