How to answer law questions: Over the years, law schools and law universities have evolved two methods of asking test or exam questions. They are the problem and essay questions patterns. Basically, these two ways of asking questions require a totally different ways of answering them that are different from the traditional ways of answering questions in the primary, secondary, and tertiary institutions.
One major problem that new law university intakes encounter, is the fact that many of them usually have the mindset that where they are (university) will be the same with where they are coming from (secondary school); and because of this, they tend not to ask questions about how well to answer their law questions thus going on to use the traditional or general method and ending up not getting the expected result or even failing.
In this article, I am going to be expounding on the way of tackling law essay questions for the benefit of students. However, what I will be discussing is the general rule which is subject to what your specific tutor or lecturer may require from you.
So, it is advised that in as much as you learn how to generally answer law essay questions, you should pay attention and understand your lecturers so as to give him/her what their individual preferences are, like asking you to write a concised answer or be elaborate, or add this and remove that etc.
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Differences between Law problem and Essay Questions
As you may know, Law problem questions are not the same as essay questions. Problem questions are those law questions that tell live stories about the relationship between people and then require you to identify legal issues from those interactions, address the issues with relevant authorities and then to advise the parties on their different rights using the IRAC method.
It is important to note that a single problem question could have a series of different events which are based on different legal principles.
On the other hand, an essay question is a question which requires an individual to write on legal principles without using a particular format like the IRAC method.
Notminding the fact that you are not required to advise the parties or to use a particular method to answer your question, you have to have some mental steps at the back of your mind so as to make your work enticing and arranged before your tutor or Lecturer.
HOW TO ANSWER LAW PROBLEM QUESTIONS USING IRAC METHOD
Just like I explained at the beginning of this work, a problem question is a question that test candidates by giving them stories/cases to solve. Here, law students will be expected to draw out the issues of law in the story, as it relates to what they have been taught in the classroom.
Take for instance, a problem question on customary law might tell the story of a man who beats his wife because the custom provides for it. After explaining the story, students will be required to either provide the position of the law on the issues raised in the story or to advise the parties in the story.
The most acceptable way of answering law problem questions is through IRAC method. IRAC is actually the best because it makes it very easy for students to explain any legal principle with authorities in the simplest format. Below are the things you must know about IRAC method of answering law questions.
Meaning of IRAC
The word “IRAC” is an acronym which stands for:
- Issues – I
- Rule of law – R
- Application – A
- Conclusion – C
Note that if you must answer problem questions using this format, you must have this acronym at the back of your mind. If you miss any step, then you are getting the whole question wrong.
Now, to make sure that you understand the steps listed above, i will take my time to explain what you are supposed to do in every step. Remember, this is to teach you how to answer law problem question using IRAC method.
Your first concern is to determine the issue or issues implicated in the question. This
determination involves asking yourself, what is the problem sought to be addressed in the case?
Example: What is the liability of a master regarding tort committed by his servant while engaged in a conduct expressly prohibited by the master?
The importance of accurate identification of the issue(s) is that it narrows your response to the gist of the question.
Once you accomplish this goal, you will know automatically that there is no need to state, for instance, that “the tort borders on vicarious liability” or for you to describe general elements of the tort in question.
Your task is to focus only on those elements or information that substantively (not tangentially) speak to the issue(s) you have successfully identified. Relevance is the key here. Recall my admonition, “the more you write, the more you expose your ignorance.”
Note that you are not expected to call the names of parties in the story in the issues because they are issues for determination in law. You can only mention the names of parties in the story or case given to you when you reach third stage which is APPLICATION
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RULE OF LAW
The “R” or Rule (rule of law) in IRAC is also called “reasoning.” This is because the
applicable rule of law is reasoned from the facts of the case. As you think through the
problems presented, aided by the issue you have successfully identified, the rule will
emerge. What rule of law will guide the court in reaching a correct decision, assuming the same facts?
This is the question that you need to ask your self; it is also the question that you need to address. A rule of law in vicarious liability, for instance, is that “a master is liable for the acts of his servant, even when expressly prohibited, so long as the servant acted within the scope of his employment.”
Under the rule of law, students are expected to cite their authorities. Authorities here can be cases, statutes, dictum of judges, articles which are related to the issue in question. It is very important that you cite authorities because that is what will back up the rule of law and legal principles in the case.
This is where you apply the rule of law to the issue(s) you have raised. By doing this, you are applying the rule of law to the actual story in the problem question given to you. In the application, you are expected to pick those authorities and rules of law that concerns the issues raised and apply them to the matter effectively.
Always pay attention to exception(s) to the general rule, if any, and clearly outline/justify any distinctions that might be helpful to your argument. By constantly reminding yourself of the issue(s), you are bound to succeed in steering yourself away from irrelevance.
A great analysis is targeted to the issue(s) identified and is judged by the degree of focus/precision as well as the presentation (language/expressions used in articulating your argument).
Finally, the conclusion (“C”). A few sentences would suffice to wrap up your discussion. Briefly state the outcome of your analysis. Where the question requires that you advise the parties, the conclusion is the best place to do that.
Simply tell each of the parties their rights and persuade them to sue the when the need be. Here, you can also rebuke the party in default in the case and tell him why he/she is at fault.
Okay! Now that you know what all the letters in the acronym IRAC entails, I will give you an example of how a perfect law problem question is answered. The example below is a problem question that borders on the law of defamation.
If you are a student and you don’t know anything about the law of defamation, don’t worry. Just keep reading. You will still be able to understand the steps taken in every section.
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Sample of a law problem question answered using IRAC method
The Daily Trumpeter, a popular Newspaper in Enugu recently published a report of the proceedings of the Enugu State High Court in a land case between Chief Okoto and Barrister Akuepue under the caption ‘Judge calls a popular Enugu Lawyer: ‘A Crook and a Land Speculator”.
In the article, the newspaper reporter, Ade also stated thet Nigerian lawyers are in the habit of using their knowledge of the law to deprive innocent ‘laymen’ of their land. Barrister Akuepue and Barrister Ikpeama, another popular lawyer based in Enugu have sepaprately sued Joe, the edito of The Daily Trumpeter and Ade for publication.
Issue 1: Whether Newspaper Publishers can be liable for publishing court/tribunal proceedings
Issue 2: What must one prove in order for his defense of ‘fair comment’ to be successful
Issue 3: What is the legal position on defamation of a class or a group of person
RULE OF LAW:
Defamation refers to the publication of a statement which is calculated to injure a person and cause right-thinking members of the society to shun or avoid him, or even cause them to hate him and also convey an imputation on him which is injurious to his office, trade or profession – s.137 Enugu State Torts law, cap 150 2004(which shall hereinafter be called ESTL), Sketch v. Ajagbemokeferi.
People are thus warned against idle gossip which may likely impugn another person when communicated to a third party. Defamation may either be in the form of libel which is in a permanent form such as newspaper publication, television or radio broadcasts; or otherwise in slander which has a transient nature usually verbalized or through gesticulations conveying a defamatory connotation.
For an action in defamation to succeed, the following essential elements must be proved, as a thing of necessity:
The words complained of must be defamatory:
If right-thinking people of sane minds would think less of an individual or shun and avoid him due to a statement, then this element may be said to have been
Defamatory words must refer to the plaintiff:
It is not sufficient that the defamatory statement described a person merely by his name Akintla v. Anyiam. It is enough where he is identified by his initials, post, Photograph, or even his office – Dafe v. Teswinor.
The words complained of must be published:
It has been held in a vast litany of cases that it is not the publication of defamatory statement but the publication that grounds a cause of action. In fact, in Pullman v. Hill, Lord Esher, Master of the Rolls said thus
‘‘Publication is the making known of the defamatory matter after it has been written to such person other than the person to whom it is written’’ It therefore follows that publication in itself is what grounds a cause of action- s. 141 ESTL.
Also, communication to the plaintiff himself cannot ground a cause of action for the purposes of determining liability in defamation because defamation is injury to ones reputation and protects not an individual’s opinion of himself but the estimation in which others hold him – Okotcha v. Olumese.
However, even if a person has been alleged to have defamed another, there is an array of defenses
open to him. Such defenses are:
- Unintentional Defamation
- Innocent dissemination
- Justification( or truth) – s. 163 ESTL
- Volenti Non fit injuria – Chapman v.
- Fair comment- s. 194(1) ESTL
Under the defenses of privilege, we have what is known as absolute privileges and also qualified privileges. Circumstances under which the defense of qualified privilege can arise are varied but for the
purposes of our case, we have an occasion known as Statements made in performance of a legal, moral or social duty – s.178 ESTL.
In the connection above, for such an occasion to arise, the person giving out information which is alleged to contain defamatory statements must have a duty to give such information on grounds of
public policy and also the party receiving such information, that is, the person to whom the matter is published to must have a corresponding duty of receiving such information.
Perhaps, this is the reason the law admits that radio and television broadcasters as well as Newspaper Publishers and Proprietors are covered by the said defense – NTA v. Babatope. It is also the legal position, pursuant to s.185 (1) that qualified privilege very much applies to those who publish reports of judicial proceedings. However, such broadcasters or publishers must be very careful enough to give reports of what actually took place in court, not necessarily a verbatim report of the proceedings but at least an abridged or condensed report will be privileged, provided that it gives a fair, accurate and correct impression of what
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It clearly and necessarily follows that when such reports are substantially inaccurate, such a report will lose the protective cloak of this defense. Thus, in Omo-Osagie v, Okutobo, a report of a newspaper of certain court proceedings bore the caption, ‘‘Chief Justice Tells a Teacher: ‘You are a Bad Woman’.
However, those words were never used by the Judge, and the courts held that such a newspaper report had lost the defense of qualified privilege. The defense of fair comment stated above, consists of criticisms of matters of public interest in the form of comments, by citizens upon true facts, such comments being honestly made without malice – s.194(1)
Enugu State Torts law, cap 150 2004.
In order for this defense to avail a person, the following requirements must be proved to the satisfaction of the courts trying the issue:
The Matter commented on must be of Public Interest:
The matter must be one of general concern as to affect the generality of the population at large- London Artists Ltd. v. Littler. Thus issues of land fraud by legal practitioners may fall for issues of public interest.
The Comment must be an expression of Opinion not an assertion of fact:
It is noteworthy that the defense of fair comment consists of two things: a set of facts which must be true and the commentator’s opinion on those facts- s. 194(1) (a). The distinction between a comment and a fact, however, depends on the merits of each case.
The Comment must be Honest- s. 194(1)(c) So long as a commentator honestly expressed his view, it is immaterial that he used excessively strong language o that people read all sorts of innuendoes into it, if he made the comment honestly, he has nothing at all to fear. However, criticisms cannot be used as a cloak for an attack, or for personal imputations on the plaintiff not arising out of the subject matter not based on the facts.
The Comment must be devoid of Malice- s.195 ESTL Malice is a complete bar to a defense of fair comment. Malice means making abuse of the occasion for
some indirect purpose – Bakare v. Ibrahim.
When a class or group of persons i.e. lawyers, teachers, doctors etc, are defamed, no individual member
of the class is entitled to bring action upon grounds that he has been defamed save only when the class is so small or so ascertainable that what is said of the class is necessarily said of each and every member of it, or if the circumstances of the case show that the plaintiff was singled out and defamed – Knuppfer v. London Express Newspaper Ltd.
Thus, in Zik Enterprises ltd. V. Awolowo, an article which contained defamatory statements against the Action Group was regarded by the court not to refer to the plaintiff but to the Action Group as a political party since it was a large group and the plaintiff could not show circumstances which proved that he was singled out.
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It seems that Daily Trumpeter will not escape liability if the report they gave of the court proceedings was grossly inaccurate or did not give a correct impression of what actually transpired therein.
Also, Ade seems to have overstepped the boundaries of fair comment by making such a comment, he seems to have made a statement of fact because saying that someone is in the habit of doing something is as much as imputing a disreputable motive upon him which is very much actionable in law. Hence the cloak of fair comment may no longer protect.
Barrister Akuepue and Barrister Ikpeama by bringing action against Ade seem to be oblivious of the applicable guiding principles in the circumstance. In this connection, a defamatory statement against Nigerian lawyers as a whole is too large a group for the purposes of an action in defamation, unless, if they can show that they were singled out and defamed. They may be going on a wild goose chase.
Joe: You will only escape liability if what you said happened in court was accurate, otherwise, you will fall for liability.
Ade: It is true you have overstepped the bounds of fair comment; however you may still escape liability under the principles of defamation of a class or group.
Barrister Akuepue and Barrister Ikpeama: You both can only bring action against Ade and Joe should what Joe reported about the proceedings be inaccurate. With respect to Ade although he has lost the defense of fair comment, he can still be liable for publishing what Joe reported, only the will you have a cause of action against him.
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Four things to note when answering law questions
Note the little differences in the way every lecturer want students to answer their questions:
Even though IRAC method of answer law problem questions is generally acceptable, some lecturers make little changes to the way they want their questions to be answered.
For instance, some lecturers posit that after outlining your issues, you must tackle them one after the other. What that means is that, you are expected to apply IRAC in the different issues (One after the other).
Well, it is impossible for me to cover all the different styles lecturers like. So, I enjoin you to always attend classes. By attending classes, you will know the best method to answer your law problem questions.
It will surprise you to know that some lecturers don’t even like their questions to be answered using IRAC. So you see, you must know what every lecturer wants.
Time is a very important factor:
To perform very well as a law student, you must have it in mind that time is very important. You have to be time conscious because you have only but 2:30 minutes to answer all the questions you were given. Most times, students are expected to answer at least 3 questions in law examinations.
So you must learn to manage your time. If you do not manage your time properly, you will definitely not finish answering your questions.
I personally recommend that you get a wristwatch for your exams. It will go a long way to help you plan how to use your time adequately.
Always cite your authorities with red pen:
One of the pivotal information that has never been skipped in all the tutorials I have read on how to answer law problem question is the citing of authorities.
The importance of using a red pen when citing authorities in law examinations cannot be over emphasized. The reason is because, it makes it easy for anyone who is assigned to mark your examination script.
So, in other not to jeopardize your chance of success in any law exam, you should use red pen to cite your authorities. Your authorities here may include: cases, names of judges, articles, statutes, dictums etc.
Dive detailed information about the issues raised in every case:
Most times, lecturers prefer giving more marks to students who were able to give them detailed information about the question than students who just answered the question.
For sure, if you answer the question correctly you will definitely be given the mark you deserve. But if you give more details, you will likely earn more marks.
Take for instance, you might be asked to explain the term “Nigeria legal system“. If you go ahead to just define it and move to the next question, you won’t even get your full marks there. To get your full marks, you must also highlight the features of Nigerian legal systems and any other subtopic in the topic. Though, you are not expected to go too deep. Just make sure you give detailed information. Some lecturers love it.
Okay! for now, this is all i can disclose on this topic (How to answer law problem question). Like i have rightly mentioned, it is important to always attend classes because the way a particular lecturer will want his/her problem question to be answered might be different from the way another lecturer wants it.
That notwithstanding, i have explained the most generally accepted way of answering law question using IRAC method above. So, if you have not written law examination before, you can safely understand the IRAC method as i explained it. Hope this article was helpful? Do let me know if you have any question or confusion as to how to answer law problem question using IRAC method. I will be glad to help.
Edeh Samuel Chukwuemeka ACMC, is a Law Student and a Certified Mediator/Conciliator in Nigeria. He is also a Developer with knowledge in HTML, CSS, JS, PHP and React Native. Samuel is bent on changing the legal profession by building Web and Mobile Apps that will make legal research a lot easier.
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