Doctrinal (or “black letter”) methodology refers to a way of conducting research which is usually thought of as “typical legal research”. A doctrinal approach to research will focus on case-law, statutes and other legal sources. It differs from other methodologies in that it looks at the law within itself; a pure doctrinal approach makes no attempt to look at the effect of the law or how it is applied, but instead examines law as a written body of principles which can be discerned and analysed using only legal sources.
A strong doctrinal analysis will be the starting point for much legal research. The doctrinal methodology can encompass any form of purely legal analysis, including the history of law (e.g. Roman law), what the law was previously, what the law is now and whether there are indications as to how the law might be evolving or developing. It is often associated with positivist legal research – the law is what the law says it is, rather than examining the morality or effectiveness of the law – and this is both a strength and a weakness. In legal research, a doctrinal focus is often a good starting point, but a lot of legal research will need to take analysis further than a purely doctrinal approach.
The doctrinal methodology is often criticised for being disconnected with reality – by focussing on legal sources it often doesn’t question or challenge the application of the law, but instead analyses the law only in terms of internal consistency. Nevertheless, doctrinal analysis should underpin most legal research, as a strong doctrinal analysis to establish what the law is is often a necessary precursor to researching other legal questions – particularly in areas where the law is uncertain or evolving.
Undertaking doctrinal research typically involves source-based research and it would be unusual to undertake qualitative or quantitative research under the doctrinal methodology. Doctrinal analysis will focus on traditional legal sources, such as case law. Despite this, it is not impossible to exclude doctrinal analysis from other methods. For example, the Big Data for Law project used qualitative methods to analyse the language and language use of statutes. (Whilst the project had other, non-doctrinal goals, the aim to analyse statute language use is a function of doctrinal research).
Doctrinal research is one of the fundamental methodologies of legal research, but increasingly research looks beyond pure doctrinal analysis. A familiarity with conducting doctrinal analysis therefore remains fundamental to any legal research project, but most projects will require moving beyond doctrinal analysis to utilise other methodologies. A review of some of these methodologies will follow in the coming weeks.