As approaching a new research project can be daunting, each of us will be putting up blog posts over the next few days detailing how we like to begin a new piece of research. Firstly, Coralie:
(A typical example of Coralie’s research pile)
Whenever I wish to begin researching a new topic, I start with a basic journal search in Westlaw, and try to find 5-10 relevant and relatively recent journal articles. I use these articles both to find primary sources, such as leading case law, and also to begin to allow me to ‘think around’ and evaluate the law as I research it. Usually, they will also help to shape the structure of my research by highlighting problem areas or areas of debate on which my research can focus. Using pertinent sources from the journal articles, I will then turn to case law. As I read cases, I find it helpful to write my doctrinal law sections alongside my reading, so that it often takes the structure of the judgments. I also use cases to find other judgements which have been relied upon or distinguished or discussed, to help ensure that I have researched all relevant cases.
Once I have written a section on case law and legislation, I find it useful to try and plan the themes and structure of my critique of this, to decide which further sources I am going to be looking at. My research involves welfare benefits law and practice, and this is an area which is often rich in sources which may be unusual in legal research. Much welfare benefits practice is not contained in primary legislation but in Regulations and departmental policy. I will therefore often search for the most recent departmental guidance – these should be available through the gov.uk website – to be able to evaluate how the law is actually being put into practice. It is also useful to look at personal stories, as a lot of controversy in the operating of the benefits system comes from misapplication of policy or regulations. For this, media can be a good source of information, and there will often be one or two journalists who are particularly prone to bringing to light stories in the area. Blogs can also provide information, and there are a number of blogs which exist to bring together voices and experience in this area.
I will therefore typically begin with more traditional legal sources, using journal articles and other academic evaluative pieces to begin my research. Once I have used this to produce a description of the law, I will start to branch out into secondary sources to build my analysis. I find that it often takes some time to adopt this approach – I will typically spend one-two weeks finding and reading journal articles, another three-four weeks on case law and, depending on the depth and scope of analysis, four-six weeks on the secondary sources, for each chapter of my research. Sometimes this can take much longer. For LLM students, who should have been taught major cases or legislative provisions already, this part of the research should be speedier, but nevertheless it can be worth spending a couple of weeks on analytical materials, as this is where most marks are to be picked up – and don’t be afraid to be inventive!
Of course the quality of sources is always important, so in researching secondary sources, it pays to be clear what you are trying to achieve and which will be the most authoritative type of source to accomplish this. Blogs and media articles will always be biased, but can be useful in highlighting personal experience that contradicts official policy, provided they are treated with caution in the research. Parliamentary or departmental materials are likely to carry more weight, but again, they will be biased. Departmental documents are likely to be useful if you are looking at how the law operates; proceedings in Hansard (such as Parliamentary debates) may provide you with a rich source of analysis and comment; judicial speeches or articles are likely to be the best source of legal analysis.