Unpacking the Core Modules of a Qualifying Law Degree
Samantha Love read Law at Merton College, Oxford, and is currently following the BCL course.
It makes sense that all qualified lawyers should have a grasp of the basics of our legal system – just like doctors should understand the basic workings of the whole human body, even if they specialise later on.
It helps to understand your area if you know how it interacts with everything else, and makes sure the profession stays well-respected as everyone has the same basic training. The lawyers’ version of this includes the core modules which you will find in a Qualifying Law Degree, or in a conversion course (the GDL). There are alternative routes to becoming a lawyer, but these two routes are still the more common ones.
So, that means you will be studying certain key areas of our legal system at some point, whether as a first degree or when converting. Their titles don’t give much away and may not sound all that inspiring – the law of obligations, public law, criminal law, property law, equity and the law of trusts, and the law of the European Union. Whilst everyone has their favourite(s), each of them brings up key questions about how we order our society and really can be engrossing. The aim here is to show you a bit of this with each area of study, so that you get a feel for each one. The focus here is on the ‘big questions’ more than the specific areas of law which are covered on the courses. Details may vary between institutions, and you can get a better feel for a subject from looking at a few examples rather than reading a list of sub-topics.
Obligations, including contract, restitution and tort
It seems almost intuitive that if you don’t perform your contracts that the person you made the contract with can go to court and either make you perform the contract or pay him some money. We’re also used to seeing adverts about personal injury claims, and knowing that those mats on the floor in supermarkets by the grapes are there to prevent you from slipping and claiming money from the company for your losses if you’re off work due to the injury. However, when you think about it the laws of contract and tort are far less intuitive than they seem from our perspective – their rules have been developed over centuries.
Which promises form a contract and which do not- which agreements should the law enforce? And even if you have a contract, how do you agree what exactly it demands, especially if the agreement was never written down? And even if we both agree on what the contract demanded, we may not agree on what should happen afterwards if one party doesn’t perform some or all of the contract. Should you be able to make someone do something they no longer want to do, or do they just have to compensate you for your loss? And what is that loss – do we only count direct financial loss, or indirect (say people no longer feel they can rely on you and you lose business), or what about emotional distress? Say your holiday is absolutely terrible and not at all what you were promised – do you only get back the cost you paid for it? Should you even get all of that?
In addition to the duties under contract law, or even when you aren’t in a contractual relationship, we also say that you have certain duties towards others because of your relationship to them- usually because you are in a position from which you could cause them harm if not careful. A lot of this comes under the heading of negligence law, outlined in the Donoghue v Stevenson section of our article on fascinating legal cases. However, when are you in a position that you should be thinking about whether your actions may harm others? And how much of the resulting loss should you have to pay for?
There are so many different distinctions to draw in order to decide the situations in which you owe a duty to another, let alone when you have breached it and what is due, that the study of obligations can look a bit of a tangle when you first begin it. However, remembering the different questions which make it so complex, and thinking about why these questions are important, makes the subject fascinating. There’s a fair bit of public policy at play here.
Public law consists of constitutional law, administrative law (which is about control of the executive (government)’s decision-making powers), and human rights law.
We do have an English constitution, even if it is not all written down in one document entitled ‘the Constitution of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland’ and enforced by a Supreme Court in quite the same way it is in the United States of America. But then again, the U.S. Constitution isn’t the whole of its constitution. A constitution is made up of all the elements which make the state work, including customs (known as conventions), important legislation and even the decisions of major cases. It is a central part of our constitution that the Queen signs every Bill of Parliament put before her which has passed through the Houses of Commons and Lords, except for those put through using the Parliament Act whereby the Lords can be avoided. Imagine if she refused! A revolution might even take place if the monarchy refused to listen to the will of the people. However, there’s not a single piece of legislation or court decision where this is stated as a rule. It just happens, and that is the beauty of our constitution. If Scotland had voted for independence in its referendum, we would have found a way to enact it without any great fanfare. It would obviously still have been an administrative nightmare, but constitutionally it would have been possible without any special procedure because there is no written constitution to change.
Without a formal written and codified Constitution there is a constant tension between different parts of the State as they debate what is constitutionally required (or permitted) in certain situations. Our Human Rights Act 2008 is a perfect example. If a UK court finds a piece of legislation to be incompatible with the Act, then it can read it ‘so far as possible’ in order to make it comply, or ask Parliament to look at it again. The courts cannot strike down legislation, but ‘re-readings’ of legislation have included reading ‘spouse’ as ‘long-term partner of either sex’ and Parliament will usually follow any recommendations of the court if legislation is referred to it for reconsideration. It’s a delicate balance, because if the court sends too much legislation Parliament will refuse to change it and if it sends too little then the protection of human rights might be at stake.
These examples of conventions and the way the Human Rights Act works barely even scratch the surface of public law, but broadly speaking it is the law relating to how the State works. It covers everything from protesting against a decision of the local council or the planning authority, to complaining that legislation violates human rights. It is a big subject, and is infamous for including strange rules and only limited legislation or case law, but personally it’s a favourite just because it is so important and so politically charged.
Everyone who is friends with a law student at university knows at least one criminal law case. As in any other topic, the ‘key cases’ are ones just off the beaten track or which cause problems for the legislation, which in criminal law usually means they are particularly gruesome or fascinating.
Part of what makes criminal law so interesting is that, unlike contract law where you ‘opt-in’ to the law (you could choose not to enter a contract), criminal law applies to everyone automatically. Of course, it can also have a huge impact on your life if you are imprisoned. The fact that the law can be so unclear and in places controversial makes it therefore fascinating, and sometimes a little worrying! Take our laws on bodily harm. We distinguish between Actual Bodily Harm (ABH) and Grievous Bodily Harm (GBH) as the two worst forms of harm short of death. The official test for what makes something GBH instead of ABH? “Really serious harm“. How can we get consistent results with such a simple and subjective test? Is it enough that there will be a whole jury who has to decide the issue, and not just one person? And can we agree as a society on certain examples? Cutting someone’s hair was once decided to be ABH in an appeal case, because your hair is so central to your identity and self-esteem. Should this get you a community order, or even a prison sentence, and a criminal record? There was once an episode of Gladiators where the contestants had gone on the show because one had cut the other’s hair whilst they were sleeping – should the Crown Prosecution Service have got in touch? It can be so difficult to know when the law should get involved in punishing wrongdoing, and you’ll find yourself developing strong opinions on the outcome of different cases when you start studying the topic.
The State enforces ownership of property through law, obviously enough. It does however set conditions on ownership being enforceable. Most obviously, if you have certain types of interest in land – if you own it, or are renting it for a long period, or its owner has taken out a mortgage with you – then you must register them with the Land Registry. This provides a way for potential buyers to check that they are buying the land from the right person, and will not find that it is worth less than they thought because somebody has a right to live on it or a right of way over it.
However, whilst this makes a lot of sense because it makes people feel more secure about buying property, the law also makes exceptions for those who cannot be expected to register their interest, often because they would not be expected to know it exists. This includes those who live in the house and have agreed with the owner that their contribution to the mortgage means they part-own the house, or those on a short lease. The purchaser is expected to inspect the property, see the person living there and ask whether they expect to own any share in the property. There’s a delicate balance here between two types of security – the purchaser’s desire to be sure of the ownership of and interests in the property, and the occupant’s need for a secure home. One of the longest-running (exam) questions in land law is whether this balance has been struck properly by the law. This is only a small portion of property law, but it sets up some key themes which run throughout the topic – what interests in what property does (and ought) the law to protect, and what should and does it demand in order to protect those interests?
Equity and the Law of Trusts
For all we talk about ‘the law’ achieving this or that outcome, English law has its own peculiarity which was in addition to the law but is now part of it – equity. It started as a way of exercising discretion when the law gave an unfair response to a situation, but now has settled into its own rules and can be applied in the same courts as the law (you used to have to go to a separate court).
Perhaps the most important addition by equity is the trust. If in my will I ask you to look after some money for my son Alfie until he is 21, and to give him a certain amount a year and more if he is good, then you are a trustee of the money for Alfie. You are under certain legal duties, mostly to follow out the ‘terms of the trust’ (the rules I set out in my will). You legally own the money, and are able to deal with it as if it were yours provided you follow the terms of the trust, for example investing it, but the money is in fact (and we say in equity) Alfie’s and on his 21st birthday he can ask for the whole lot.
As well as for holding money for children, trusts are particularly useful for pension schemes. The money is owned by the trustees in law, but in equity those who have paid into the fund own it and the trustees have to invest the money so as to ensure it makes enough interest to pay for everyone’s pensions. Charities also run on a trust structure, but with extra statutory rules because of the advantages charities receive (such as tax reductions)- and there’s no equitable owner of the money. Otherwise, you’d have to say that the dogs at Battersea owned the charity’s assets in equity. With charities it’s more about controlling the trustees than saying those benefiting from the charity’s work really own the money.
This type of ‘ownership’ may seem strange, but it allows for a lot of possibilities which straight ownership would not cover. Equity, as its name suggests, is about achieving a fair outcome, and recognising the ‘real’ ownership of the property allows us to prevent fraud by the trustee by allowing the equitable owner to come to court to complain about misuse of the trust. It really is quite ingenious, and as a topic best shows the benefits of a common law system based on rules developed through cases, rather than setting down hard-and-fast laws and not being able to develop them to fit the facts of a case.
The Law of the European Union
Regardless of which newspaper you read, the EU has a large impact on our day-to-day lives. The 48-hour limit on the working week was brought in by the EU, and thanks to the EU all citizens of EU Member States could move to another EU country tomorrow and start work. The EU also now has a Charter of Fundamental Rights, and negotiations are under way for it to sign the European Convention on Human Rights. What does that make the EU now? Is it still an organisation for trade, or is it much more? What should it be?
Understanding the EU is about far more than the rules of freedom of movement. It’s an organisation unlike any other – somewhere between a federal state like the USA and an international organisation like the UN. It raises plenty of difficult questions about the sovereignty of the Member States (MS)- can they ignore the EU if they disagree with a piece of legislation, or is EU law ‘higher law’ under the constitution, which cannot be ignored? And how do the institutions of the EU work together, and what does that tell us about what kind of organisation it is? It has a Parliament like a State does, but the bulk of its legislation comes from the Commission, which isn’t democratically elected or democratically accountable.
As for learning the law of the EU, the attempt to create a ‘single market’ for European goods and services has brought about a lot of great cases. Should Germany be allowed to ban blackcurrant liqueur below a minimum alcohol content, on public health grounds (yes, I did say minimum alcohol content)? Can France ban Edam cheese because it doesn’t have enough fat to be ‘real’ cheese? The answer to both is now a resounding ‘no’, but these cases can bring up questions of national identity as much as challenging out-of-date regulation. Should Germany be allowed to continue its blanket ban on laserquesting because it finds it contrary to human dignity? Apparently so. Can the UK maintain its short opening hours on Sunday? That also seems to be fine. Studying EU law is as much about understanding the balances being made between the different cultures and histories of the 27 Member States as it is about knowing what the latest Regulation from Brussels demands.
The amount of time you spend on these core modules depends on your pathway to the legal profession – some universities get them covered by the end of second year and give you plenty of opportunity for specialised modules, whereas on the GDL this is your whole diet of legal study. And at some universities there’ll be other core modules not demanded by the regulator – at Oxford University, Roman Law (yes, literally the law of the Romans) and Jurisprudence (legal philosophy) are still compulsory. It’s always good to know what the basics are, however, and these topics are the minimum of any Qualifying Law Degree or the GDL. I hope you enjoy them!
Last reviewed: January 2015
Next review: January 2016