Case classes: injecting socio-legal research into the reading of cases

Comprised of groups totalling approximately 30 to 35 students, four case classes are delivered throughout the stage one Introduction to Obligations module - two classes based on tort and two on contract. The case class mode of delivery was adopted with the aim of continuing the enthusiasm for case reading developed via teaching case method and storytelling to help students to explicitly master elements of legal process whilst developing their critical reading skills. Indeed, the case classes foster a clear engagement with the legal doctrine, court structure, court proceedings, counsels' submissions, the doctrine of precedent and the skill of legal argument. Hard copies of the cases are disseminated to students a week prior to class and a selection of 'thinking points' are suggested such as how the cases under discussion fit into the law of tort, how one case builds upon the other, the legal issues involved and reasons given for the decisions, as well as whether students agree with the case outcome. This provides ample time for students to read and reflect upon the issues in detail and to develop questions and points of discussion that they bring - with some enthusiasm, as both teachers and students have noted - to class. As one student commented on completion of the module:

First, case classes allow a deeper look into cases relevant to a principle of law without the time constraints present in seminars. This should provide a stronger grasp of case law within the relevant area. Secondly, the cases studied as applications of the core cases involved in the relevant area of law show a practical example of the application of precedents. This, when coupled with the knowledge of the core cases from the seminar, provides a stronger foundation of case law for students to take into exams.[1]

The cases chosen for study in the case classes are selected to complement the research interests of the law lecturers delivering the module. For example, this author's research is broadly situated within the area of legal obligations, with a particular emphasis on the tort of negligence within healthcare provision, and more specifically on the collection of bodily materials and the role of informed consent. The first set of tort cases that students were exposed to was carefully selected with consent to medical treatment in mind. St George's Healthcare NHS Trust v S, Regina v Collins and Others, Ex parte S [1999] and The NHS Trust v Ms T [2004] concerned the refusal of consent to medical treatment. The first case illustrates this in the context of a 36-week-pregnant woman presenting at hospital with pre-eclampsia who was given a caesarean section against her will, and the second in relation to the administering of a blood transfusion to a patient following repeated episodes of self-harm, again without her consent - indeed, against her express and seemingly lucid wishes. As an expert in the field of consent to medical treatment, this author was able to facilitate a lively discussion and debate concerning these case studies and, drawing upon individual research, including substantive publications in this area (Devine, 2010a; 2010b) was subsequently able to introduce the students to other theorists and scholars in this field. The doctrine of informed consent and the law on risk disclosure was explored in detail by highlighting the way in which health professionals can be open to litigation if they fail to communicate the risks and benefits involved in a proposed medical procedure, therefore rendering invalid their patient's consent to the treatment. This author's research into the potential legal liability of health professionals who procure cord-blood stem cells at the request of pregnant women was used to illustrate this point. This discussion included an explanation of an empirical study carried out in 2006-2007 (Devine, forthcoming 2012) to determine how consent procedures for the collection of cord blood were being conducted within National Health Service (NHS) maternity units in England - the results of which demonstrated a clear disparity between NHS hospitals with regard to information provision. Such empirical research provided a clear example to KLS law students of how healthcare professionals can be at risk of clinical negligence if consent is deemed invalid by a court of law.

Similarly, other tort law teaching staff have injected elements of their own research and expertise into the second tort case class - which examines the Wainwright cases (Wainwright v Home Office [2003] and Wainwright v UK (2007)) - such as those with a particular interest in the field of bodily integrity, autonomy, trespass to person torts and the intentional infliction of indirect harm, as well as human rights and the protection of a person's privacy. Socio-legal aspects of these cases focus upon the increasing legal and societal acceptance of a greater need to protect privacy rights in modern-day society, a violation of which has potentially damaging effects on the victims and their families (Campbell v Mirror Group Newspapers Ltd [2004] and Mosley v News Group Newspapers [2008]), and on the judicial response to some of the identified gender inequalities of the trespass to the person torts, as seen particularly in the law's response to the issue of stalking (R v Ireland [1998] and Khorasandjian v Bush [1993]). Student reaction to this form of research-led teaching was indeed a positive one, and it could be said that arousing interest amongst students perhaps depends, 'less on technique (but) more upon having something of interest and importance to say' (Carr, 2009). Having encountered case classes in the introductory Obligations module in stage one, students studying Law of Obligations in stage two, where concepts and ideas become steadily more difficult, had a strong background of case reading and were able to build on this in a further six case classes.

Over both stages of study, case classes have replaced some of the traditional expository lectures in Obligations and were designed to address in part the perceived legal skills deficit within our law students and to engage students with law in a more interesting and pro-active way. The motivation for this type of teaching was borne from the realization that it is not enough to 'tell' students about how law works in a mechanical, ritualistic manner, but to intellectually stimulate them through engagement with dialogue rather than mere 'coverage' (Carr and Horsey, 2010). Students are supported in their study by repeating the format of the case class each week (with a new case(s) under discussion) to ensure that their understanding from the previous week's class remains in place before introducing new skills and legal concepts to build on their prior knowledge. This form of pedagogy takes the traditional teaching methods - seminars and lectures - to a new level. It embeds the advantages of each into a class that emulates the interactiveness of seminars combined with the directional guidance of lectures, but with the added 'twist' of allowing a larger number of students to be exposed to academics researching in a particular field of expertise whilst in a supportive atmosphere, less intimidating than a large lecture theatre. Ostensibly, case classes fall midway between a seminar and lecture, but are designed to allow discussion beyond the doctrinal - indeed, the theoretical, historical, socio-legal, economic and political context within which the selected case law is located, and a critical engagement of the key issues and concepts is actively encouraged and fostered by teaching staff. An example of this can be demonstrated with reference to the case classes on consent: these cases provoked discussions regarding the changing nature of the doctor-patient relationship, which has witnessed a shift in recent years from a prudent-doctor standard in tort law ('the doctor knows best') to a prioritization of patient autonomy as seen in cases such as Chester v Afshar (2004). Furthermore, gender inequalities associated with the perceived power imbalances within healthcare, particularly in other pregnancy-related cases (Parkinson v St James and Seacroft University Hospital [2001] and Rees v Darlington Memorial Hospital NHS Trust [2002]) are teased out, as well as accenting the political sway towards litigation avoidance strategies (such as informed consent to treatment provides) within a risk-averse society.

There appears to be a direct correlation between the rationale for case classes and the expectations of those currently studying law. Research into learning and teaching, in particular the student learning experience of those attending law school, was explored in a study carried out in 2008 and reported at the Association of Law Teachers conference in 2009 (Bone, 2009). Analysis of the findings revealed that the provision of seminars and lectures was rated highly by students, compared to knowledge that they purportedly gained from other educational mediums such as law textbooks and online resource materials. Of the 1428 responses to a questionnaire, 81 per cent agreed or strongly agreed with the statement that 'lectures are the most important part of my learning experience at University' and a staggering 93 per cent agreed or strongly agreed with the statement: 'Seminars are an effective means of improving my understanding.' Given that case classes mirror in an advanced form the techniques used in both the traditional modes of educational delivery, it may be deduced that the teaching methods used in case classes would have been met favourably by a large proportion of students who participated in the study. Although the use of this innovative form of teaching is in its infancy, initial reactions from KLS students via their anonymized student evaluation forms appear to suggest that interactive pedagogy is accepted as being particularly conducive to learning and the understanding of law. Student comments generally exude an overwhelmingly positive response. For example, one stage-two student said:

Last year, during the week leading up to a case class, groups of people were forming in order to work through the case and participate in the class. The questions that were provided with the case were thought-provoking and a sensible way to ensure the students were understanding the case. I have always been a huge supporter of case classes and think that they are an excellent way to learn. We had four last year for obligations, however, when it came to exam period it was clear that case classes would have helped across the board, especially in public law and criminal law where the cases almost formed the lion's share of the exam itself.

Furthermore, student attendance rates at case classes in the first year of the degree programme have been overwhelmingly good when compared to the diminishing number of students attending live lectures at KLS.

The use of case classes also fulfils one of the main requirements set down by the UK Professional Standards Framework (Higher Education Academy, n.d.), the standards set to ensure targets for professionalism in teaching and supportive learning are met within HE. The implementation of the framework acknowledges the distinctive nature of HE, and in particular it provides 'a means by which professional approaches to supporting student learning can be fostered through creativity, innovation and continual development' (Higher Education Academy, n.d.). Indeed, case classes fulfil all these criteria in the sense that they are in themselves a creative and innovative form of teaching within KLS that inspire and stimulate students. The materials and legal concepts studied during the case class are then reintroduced for discussion in seminars (further demonstrating the spiralling of skills) and then fed into coursework assignments upon which students are assessed and receive written and oral feedback (as well as, in stage two, the final exam paper). This ensures that the learner understands the legal concepts to which they have been introduced, that the learning outcomes for the module have been achieved, and that they can then take those newly found skills into the second year of their study of Obligations.

If we locate this type of teaching within the context of theories of knowledge as advocated by Neumann et al. (2002), it may be argued that case class teaching responds to the fact that legal knowledge is multifarious in nature and law teachers must respond by using a variety of techniques and methods with which to deliver the curriculum. In other words, learning law requires the use of a combination of teaching methods to reflect the fact that law consists of both 'pure hard' knowledge (arguably best taught instructionally by mass lectures and problem-based seminars) and 'pure soft' knowledge (which is purported to be holistic and qualitative in nature and best facilitated by class meetings that encourage discussions and debates) (Linddlom-Ylanne et al., 2006). Clearly, the case class encompasses both ideals and perhaps explains its apparent success with first-year law students who often find learning law difficult enough in and of itself (Carr et al., 2009, p. 2). Furthermore, its success may also be attributed to the notion that a case class fosters a greater opportunity for students to 'participate' within the class discourse and, as such, the learner becomes more involved in the exchange of ideas within the group, which ultimately promotes a sense of group belonging and social integration for the individual. As Sfard (1998, p. 6) observes:

[L]earning a subject is now conceived of as a process of becoming a member of a certain community. This entails, above all, the ability to communicate in the language of this community and act according to its particular norms ... [F]rom a lone entrepreneur, the learner turns into an integral part of the team.

How then do these academic practices contribute to student-centric learning? Participation in research-led teaching demonstrates an element of evidence and logic to the content of our curriculum delivery and by actively engaging in the 'spirit of enquiry' (Westergaard, 1991) one can contribute to the students' learning experiences and help them to achieve their educational goals. Furthermore, professional values can equally be demonstrated via other forms of professional practice such as ensuring that law students follow appropriate academic guidelines, referencing procedures, and develop individually as members of the professional bodies within which they enrol postgraduation, such as the Bar Council and the Law Society. Indeed, academic rigour in addition to the personal development of our law students can both be viewed as aspects of professionalism (Brew, 2006).

Over and above the cases-as-stories approach backed up by the use and development of case classes, and in further recognition of the need to embed socio-legal research into the curriculum (Nuffield Inquiry, 2006) and of the benefits of utilizing the expertise of our tort law academics, students carry out independent research in a focused study of a particular area of tort law at the end of stage two via a special study in the Law of Obligations module.

  • [1] Introduction to Obligations (LW315) anonymous student evaluation form, academic year2010-2011. This student observation is particularly interesting because this module doesnot have an exam as part of its assessment, which means that the skills are, as the obligations team had hoped, cross-modular and cross-stage.
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