University of Tasmania

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Writing in Law: A Case Study of Undergraduate Case Briefs

posted on 2023-05-26, 13:50 authored by Oxley, EL

This study is an attempt to expose the linguistic conventions of the Case Brief exercise, a writing task commonly required of beginning tertiary students in law. The Case Brief is a highly conventionalised summary of the reasoning of the presiding judges. Studies of academic and professional genres are becoming more numerous, but so far there are few which have analysed legal genres as represented in the interdiscourse of student writers.

The investigation aims to characterise the case summary genre and to highlight some features which present these writers with particular linguistic difficulties. The analysis is based on the Systemic Functional grammar of Halliday (1985/1994), which is concerned with the grammatical choices favoured by speakers/writers in a given context. It is also informed by Swales (1990), Martin (1992) and Bhatia (1993).

A total of 27 assessed Case Brief assignments are analysed; 12 written by native speakers (NSs) and 15 by non-native speakers (NNSs). The NNSs were less successful at this task than the NSs. The analysis procedure is ex.lfository and descriptive with some quantification of the data. Major difficulties found at the global level were a misorderi'ng of stages, a failure to present each judge's reasoning separately and the omission of reference to previous cases. The specialised lexis, incongruent realisations and strings of circumstantial elements characteristic of this genre presented problems for these novice writers. They also had difficulty with the verbal moves inherent in reports of the judges' reasoning and with referential relationships.

The study concludes that the rationale for the task and its link with linguistic forms must be made explicit to students. Only then can the 'invisible' conventions specific to legal discourse become visible, and thus amenable to teaching and learning. Collaboration between discipline and language specialists can make this possible.





Macquarie University, NSW

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