Informal Legal Research: cheating or just poor practice?

By Carolyn Penfold

A student recently posted an assignment in the form of a problem question on an internet forum, asking forum participants for advice as though his facts were a real case he was researching. When this came to light the student claimed he’d done nothing wrong, while the teacher claimed it was a case of academic misconduct. It made me think about students discussing their assignments with their lawyer parents, or with tutors who set them on the right track, or whose barrister mates comments on their papers prior to submission. Meanwhile, we ask students to use scholarly academic research methods. We would like them to use formal research tools such as library catalogues, digests, citators, bibliographies and current awareness services to locate text books, monographs, legal encyclopaedias and journal articles. We would like them to cite cases from the best sources, ie, authorised reports, and to use only official versions of legislation.

But where does academic misconduct begin and end? I mean, wouldn’t lawyers ask their friends where to start? Wouldn’t they ask another lawyer who has dealt with a similar case before? Or, heaven forbid, perhaps they’d even post their facts on an internet forum, hoping to get some quick advice. So, is informal legal research OK? If not, how do we get students to appreciate the importance of formal research methods and the place of more informal methods?

Some suggestions: Continue reading “Informal Legal Research: cheating or just poor practice?”

How to Use Problem Based Learning


Recently, Professor Caroline Hunter visited UNSW Law and gave a terrific talk on Problem Based Learning (PBL) at York Law School, a new Law School that has deliberately integrated PBL into its design. Caroline agreed to share some of her talk on our blog:

York Law School and PBL

York Law School at the University of York was established in 2007 and thus had the advantage of designing the undergraduate LLB programme with a “clean slate”. One of the principles that the degree has been based on is the use of problem based learning. York Law School is the only Law School in the UK to build a significant component of its undergraduate programme on PBL. Continue reading “How to Use Problem Based Learning”

The dangers of MOOCs

There’s already a lot written about Massive Open Online Courses – probably too much.

But here are two recent pieces that raise interesting ideas as to where this is all headed:

Continue reading “The dangers of MOOCs”

The Future of the Legal Profession

Image(image: april-mo via

The Lawyer has produced something pretty impressive – a crystal ball for the legal professions, called 2018: A window into the future. It’s a collection of anecdotal and statistical information that sketches out what the legal industry will look like in five years’ time. While UK-based, in a global world this resource is worth a look, especially for those teachers whose subjects are more distinctly professional or skills-based and/or allow for critical analysis of what lawyers do, and will likely do in the future. Continue reading “The Future of the Legal Profession”

ALTA Conference, Teaching and Instructor Freedoms

This week’s ALTA conference was an interesting mix of papers. A number of people are talking about the ‘flipped’ classroom. This ‘new’ approach involves getting your students to read or do some other activity before they come to class.  It was interesting how new and unusual many people seemed to think this was. There was real concern about the possibility of getting students to do the work, and it became clear that some universities keep their teachers on a very tight rein – e.g., do not allow them to have class participation marks, do not allow a teacher to say to a class that they will not teach the class that day if they had not done the reading, and there was clearly a sense that many universities have so many rules that it makes it impossible for teachers to teach classes in the way they think fit.

There is always a tension, I guess, between too much and not enough regulation. The thing regulators of any kind (including teachers) need to keep in mind is the extent to which people will perform to expectation. If you regulate people as if they will behave badly they probably will. The challenge is to regulate in a way which suggests to people that they will do well so that they respond to those expectations and rise to meet them. Having some faith in teaching staff to do the right thing may be beneficial from that point of view alone.  The same applies to the classroom where students often perform extremely well when it is clear to them that they are expected to. 

By Prue Vines

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