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During our last tutorial, my OU students and I discussed how to maximise their marks on criminal law problem questions. There are some definite dos and don’ts – as well as a formula – for dealing with problem questions. If nobody’s ever shown you how to do it, allow me to be the first!

If you do nothing else – make it easy for your examiner to give you top marks

1)      If you are asked to deal with Curly, Larry and Moe breaking into a shop after hours, looking for cash and anything which would be easy to sell, with Curly hitting the security guard over the head with a brick until the guard dies, Larry shoving chocolate bars into his pockets and mouth and Moe inappropriately touching a passer by as they all escape down the street – deal with each person and each crime separately. Don’t lose marks by having a general discussion of homicide, theft and sexual assault when you can get many more marks by breaking each event down and applying relevant law to the particular facts of each offence.

2)      Use headings. “C’s liability for the death of the security guard”, lets everyone know right away what you’re talking about. Don’t irritate your examiner by making him guess what you’re on about. By starting a fresh paragraph with a new heading, you show your ability to deal with complex problems with a structured approach and inspire confidence.

3)      Don’t throw the kitchen sink at a problem. One of the outcomes you are being marked on is your ability to sift the relevant from the irrelevant. Don’t gum up your answer by burying what’s relevant under law that does not apply. For example, if you’re dealing with C’s liability for the death of the security guard, the issue is murder – not gross negligence, not involuntary manslaughter and definitely not attempted murder or s18, s20 or s47 of the OAPA.

You may be scared and think that if you throw enough at the problem, something will stick – and you will at least get some credit. Your examiner, on the other hand, will think you don’t know what you’re doing. Be brave and deal only with what’s relevant. You will be rewarded.

And finally….

4)      99% of the time the facts are there for a reason: The reason is whoever wrote the exam wants to steer you to a particular outcome. For example, one of the facts may indicate a mens rea relevant to a particular crime or an available defence. Make sure you’ve dealt with every fact given before launching into your answer. Don’t make up facts either. Steer the course they’re looking for and make it easy for them to give you the marks you deserve.

Next – Part 2, “The Formula”.

If you have any other “do and don’t” suggestions for answering problem questions, please feel free to leave a comment.