Is it possible to do a law degree in your spare time?

This year's coursebooks

This year’s coursebooks

I’ve always had a latent interest in the law. Ever since my political awakening I’ve been fascinated by the invisible tendrils of a strange and powerful system that reaches into every aspect of life. It seems bizarre that only in recent years have its layers of rules, procedures and decisions been open to easy inspection. As a layperson I was attracted by the apparent cold logic of it all: every situation gets reduced to a result that is absolutely and provably correct and consistent (of course this is wrong, but more of that later).


I’ve studied with the wonderful Open University before, gaining qualifications in music that eventually led me to start teaching piano. For those of a certain age, the OU is a fuzzy black-and-white film of a bearded man enthusing about maths at 4am on BBC2, and it’s easy to scoff if you haven’t actually studied with them. In fact I’ve been consistently impressed by the quality both of the printed material and of the teaching itself: you’re left in no doubt that you are receiving a high-quality university-level education. So in late 2010, more-or-less on the spur of the moment, I decided to take the plunge, and booked myself onto the first mandatory course of the OU’s law degree. I’d managed to fit my music studies around my work before, so I was confident that a change of subject wouldn’t present a problem (wrong again!). As I’m lucky enough to have a bachelor’s degree already, I can use the OU’s credit transfer scheme to complete the LLB with four years of part-time study (for those interested, the courses are W200, W201, W300 and W301).

I’m just about to start my last year of study towards the LLB, so it’s a good time to reflect on how things are going. I will get to the question in the title eventually, so bear with me!

Preconceptions schmeconschmeptions

Murder is bad, mmmkay...

Murder is bad, mmmkay…

So it was in at the deep end, and time for my perceptions of the law to be shattered. First was the one I’ve already mentioned: whatever you do, your legal position is definite and predictable. I’d always imagined that my legal state could be determined by reference to statute (i.e. written rules; what people think of as ‘laws’): if I go out and murder someone, then presumably there’s a Murder is Bad Act that would send me straight to the Scrubs. I had a vague impression of people ‘setting a precedent’, but had no idea what this really meant or when it happens.

The most confusing thing I’ve dealt with in the last three years is the concept of the ‘common law’. Readers in other jurisdictions will think this sounds bonkers, which is fair enough because it does sound bonkers. Common law is that body of rules which is not explicitly collected and written down anywhere, and yet remains in force as much as any statute. Sometimes they can be found in decided cases which form a binding precedent over lower courts; sometimes these cases are very old[1] but still binding; and for other rules, there is no written source at all. There is no Murder is Bad Act, and in fact no written law or judgment[2] defining murder as bad. Murder is bad because, well, it is bad. If I ended up in the dock for murder, the charge read out in court would end ‘…contrary to common law’.

Then there’s the whole business of judge-made law. Put shortly (and slightly inaccurately), a decision about a point of law in a higher court (e.g. the Supreme Court) will bind lower courts (e.g. County Courts) until that decision is subsequently overturned (or obviated by legislation). Although there is a general principle that the effect of law on a person should be predictable (you do this, it does that), if your circumstances happen to fall between two stools—something not thought of when legislation was drafted, or something that’s just never happened before—you might find yourself making legal history in the high courts, in which case no-one can predict with certainly what the result will be. Although courts can’t invalidate legislation (as they can in the US), they can change common law rules. Sometimes they do this because the old rule was bloody awful, which can only be a good thing. Realising what it is that judges actually do was one of the biggest mind-set changes I experienced in my studies.

Having learned all this, the law felt increasingly like an amorphous blob of goo in my unskilled hands.

How hard can it be?

A bit of light reading

A bit of light reading

The second question I get asked when I tell people what I’m studying (after ‘good lord, why?!!‘) is ‘ooh, isn’t that really hard?’ As one might expect, law is bloody difficult, but not in the way you might expect. The actual material is relatively straightforward to understand: legislation is pretty easy to interpret when you get the hang of it, judgments can be moderately entertaining to read, and a great deal of undergraduate law can be learned in an ‘if-this-then-that’ style.

The difficulty is in the sheer weight of material. I can’t say this enough times: these courses are huge. In the first year I read more stuff—and made more notes—than in three years of music courses. To give some perspective, the level 3[3] music course I took came with five books of around 230 pages each. This year’s level 3 course has four A4-format books with a similar number of pages each, plus three 6-800 page textbooks. The courseware is very dense and none of it can be skimmed. ‘If-this-then-that’ quickly becomes ‘if-this-then-maybe-that-but-only-if-these-four-conditions-are-satisfied-and-only-then-if-the-murderer-was-wearing-purple’.

The main problem I’ve found in terms of difficulty is the mountain of memorisation needed to do well in a law exam. The exams are closed-book, so every Act, section, and case name you might need has to be committed to memory. For some areas of law—most notably criminal law—most of what you need is in Acts of Parliament; if you can’t remember the difference between assault by penetration (s2 Sexual Offences Act 2003) and sexual assault (s3 Sexual Offences Act 2003), at least you can give the Act name and have a decent stab at the year. Similarly, the Fraud Act 2006 does what it says on the tin.

However, other areas (e.g. tort, the area of law used to sue someone who just ran you over) are very, very case-heavy. The problem with case law is that the name of the case tells you precisely nothing about the facts of the case, which in turn tell you nothing about the precedent it set, which can be extremely specific. So, for example, you can’t claim damages for pain and suffering for periods of unconsciousness (Wise v. Kaye [1961] EWCA Civ 2). No-one expects the full citation in an exam, but somehow you just have to know that ‘no damages for suffering while unconscious’ = ‘Wise v. Kaye’. If you’re thinking ‘pff, word association, no problem’, then take a look at my case list for last year’s course. There are 163 cases in that list, and those are just the ones I thought were important while I was revising.

The tl;dr of this: law is hard because it’s so very, very big.

So is it possible to do a law degree in your spare time?

One more year to go...

One more year to go…

Short answer: ask me this time next year 🙂

The previous OU courses I’ve done all recommended committing an average of 16 hours a week to study. For my music courses I found this very generous, and usually ended up doing no more than eight or ten hours in a typical week. That’s just not possible with law. Sixteen hours is the amount of time it takes to read and understand everything and to make decent notes. More is required to internalise it and relate the new material to everything else. Still more is needed to complete the assignments and revise for the hellish exams… and don’t underestimate the difference between levels 2 and 3 with law. The step up is steep to the point of being vertical.

Law will take its toll on you. You’ll turn into a legal bore, reading everything twice before you sign it[4], asking salespeople awkward questions about fitness for purpose, and watching the Supreme Court’s judgments for fun. Your friends will try to use you as a source of free legal advice the moment you begin. You’ll have an irresistible urge to put your new knowledge into practice and start suing everyone, and despair at others’ fundamental misunderstandings.

Despite all this, it is possible. Fellow students in my tutor groups have come from all kinds of backgrounds and with far busier lives than mine, and they’re slogging through the courses somehow. But if I can only offer one piece of advice: don’t underestimate law. It’s had over 700 years to become the twisty maze we have today. If you’re a bit unsure (maybe more so after reading this!), the OU offers some free extracts from its courseware along with lots of other materials. I highly recommend reading anything by Gary Slapper, a visiting professor at the OU and a highly engaging writer (plus he’s very good value on Twitter)… and speaking of Twitter, John Cooper QC never fails to analyse important legal events with precision. As an unqualified amateur I admire him and those like him beyond words, and if they appeal to you as well, perhaps you should give law some serious consideration. Just make sure that, when you do, it’s sufficient[5].

Update: it turns out that it is possible, as I just received my LLB (Hons) with an upper second class! I’ll write more about that soon.

Footnotes

[1] As noted elsewhere I really don’t like linking to Wikipedia articles, but I’m assuming that no-one’s going to use this blog post for scholarly research. Apart from anything else it would be a stupid thing to do because it, along with everything else out there, gets indexed by TurnitinBot. Don’t do it, kids.

[2] To the confusion of spellcheckers everywhere, legal folk spell it ‘judgment’. Look, it’s being underlined in red even as I type. How quaint.

[2] Undergraduate OU courses are assigned a level based on their academic content, and level 3 roughly corresponds to the final year of a full-time bachelor’s degree.

[4] Of course you should always read and understand a contract before signing it, and many things you’re asked to sign are actually contracts. I’m always amazed when I’m told that I’m the first ever to read the terms and conditions.

[5] An extraordinarily weak contract law joke. Sorry.

6 Comments

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6 Responses to Is it possible to do a law degree in your spare time?

  1. Andrew Saunderson

    Hey, thanks so much for posting this. I am just completing W100 of the OU LLB also and a lot of what you have said has resonated with me and is something that I was very conscious of, that the OU were very much breaking me in for stage 2 and 3 of the degree. I am working full time along side studying part time so it is both encouraging and insightful as to what is ahead for me. Keep updating on this if you can as it is very interesting reading for me.

    Many thanks,

    Andrew

  2. Helen

    I finished my OU law degree this year, with First Class Honours. It is possible but have to say I am lucky that I work on short term contracts s managed to take a couple of months off each year around exam time, well, the last two anyway.

  3. Johnny Noone

    It would seem you’ve closed your comments section on your Freeman articles, so as this is still within “Law” I was wondering if you could answer me a couple of questions that have been bugging me about the whole movement, namely:

    If I am governed by consent how do I withdraw my consent?

    If I cannot withdraw my consent how am I governed by consent?

    • Ian Chard

      I closed my comments on those posts due to things like this: I got fed up with the stream of abuse. In contrast, your questions are polite and well intentioned, so I shall do my best!

      (I note that you’re either in the Czech Republic or using Tor or a VPN, so if you’re not really in the UK then my answer might not apply to your jurisdiction.)

      ‘Government by consent’ is a concept in the philosophy of law and, while there is discussion over precisely what it should mean, my take is that the consent of the people in that context doesn’t refer to individuals. If it did, as you rightly point out, individuals could withdraw their consent whenever the legal system was inconvenient, and the rule of law (not to mention society as a whole) would cease to exist. One could blow up a bank, withdraw one’s consent to be governed, and escape punishment.

      Government by consent refers to the consent of the people (singular) as an indivisible unit. In a democracy, the people consents by electing a government of its choice. It can withdraw its consent, in a limited fashion, by putting up candidates with alternative opinions and voting for them instead. It can exert pressure on a sitting government to change policies with the threat of being voted out if they don’t comply.

      The most important point is this: even if I’m wrong, and government is not by consent (whatever that might mean), this doesn’t lend any credence to ‘Freeman’ theories. It is a non sequitur to say that, simply by playing word games around the definitions of government and consent, one can simply make the rule of law evaporate. I don’t take a view on whether our legal system is ideal or morally justifiable. The fact is that, as it stands, properly made law applies to everyone, consent or no consent.

      • JohnnY Noone

        Hi Ian, thanks for your response. If I’ve rambled a bit here it’s a friendly, abuse free ramble. My internal tone was conversational as I wrote so I hope it reads that way.

        Yours is certainly an interesting take on consent. Let me see if I understand you correctly. You would say that we as individuals are governed by force, (as there is no mechanism for individually withdrawing consent) and as a society our ability to withdraw consent is limited to voting.

        Given that in the last UK election 75% of the population eligible to vote did not vote for the present government, it would indicate, if nothing else, that the one option available to withdraw consent does little for the majority of people. So much for democracy. As we both know, any attempts to alter public life by individuals or groups outside of elections are met with brute force (I have marched peacefully in the streets with 100s of thousands of people and when it goes bad I’ve watched “authority” strike first every time, from the poll tax demos to the recent anti-austerity march in London last week.)

        So, does it not logically follow that we aren’t governed by consent either individually or as a whole? Does that not mean we are not free? Are we not just slaves to the whims of politicians and the captains of industry who write the laws with them? (lobbyists, TTIP, Murdoch’s countless meetings with ministers and officials etc etc etc)

        Now, I do appreciate that you say your response is just your take on the matter of consent, but the fact that “there is discussion over precisely what it should mean” gives me the chills. Shouldn’t we know EXACTLY what such an important concept means in law? Does it not suggest the concept is nothing more than a legal veil to hide the fact that we are slaves governed by force.

        You see, as interesting and complex a structure as it is, I do take a view on whether our legal system is ideal or morally justifiable, and it isn’t either of those things. Why should we, as individuals, stand under a system that does not afford us justice or liberty? I disagree that the Freeman movement is about getting away with tax dodging. The freeman movement interests me because it is a sign of people attempting to break their bonds and refusing to pay for illegal wars prosecuted against ordinary people like us.

        The simple fact is that any litigant in person without a law degree can easily be swamped and bamboozled by a prosecutor with training and a judge who has sworn an oath to the monarch whose laws are being challenged. You’ve studied more than most, but you didn’t need an OU degree to know that miscarriages of justice and corruption are rife in all the courts. Banks and big business are untouchable and the common litigant can’t even get legal aid these days. Where is the justice?

        You haven’t convinced me that there is no merit in the Freeman opinion, but in any case I wouldn’t go up against the police, barristers and judges until I absolutely knew how to play the game, and even then I wouldn’t be surprised if I landed in jail. But I tip my hat to those who do, because this isn’t about whether they are right on a point of law. This is about standing up and saying the legal system is not fit for the purpose of governing free people who consent to be governed. But are we free? Your logic suggests not. The most important point is this: if government is not by consent then we aren’t free, so who gives a fuck what the laws mean and who they apply to? It’s time we had a revolution.

        BTW if you blow up a bank you are breaking the common law prohibition against encroaching on another’s person or property. Those who call themselves Freemen stand under common law. Nobody in the movement would suggest one could blow up a bank, withdraw one’s consent to be governed, and escape punishment.

        P.S. I’m in Prague at the moment.

        • Ian Chard

          Thanks for your considered response (and lack of abuse!). I know that my written tone can appear over-formal and steely eyed, but my intent is friendly and collegiate.

          Your second paragraph is a fair summary of my take on the issue of consent to be governed: it is a collective act and not one from which individuals can resile. However, this has no bearing on the validity or otherwise of any ‘Freeman’ theory. Your arguments about the democratic deficit and lack of access to justice in the UK are interesting and I agree with some of them, but I’m not going to address them here because they are not the subject of my original post. If you feel that laws should not apply to you then your practical options are limited, and using ‘Freeman’ theory to escape the justice system is definitely not one of them. ‘Freemen’ go much further than you do: they not only believe that the system is badly broken (a reasonable view), they believe that they can use their theories to win cases in British courts (objectively and demonstrably wrong). Arguments about what our society should look like are interesting, but that’s not why I wrote my original post. I’m only here to make one point: ‘Freeman’ theories are legally unrecognisable and of no practical use in a British court of law. Even worse, they are dangerous: at least one person has been made bankrupt while trying to use these theories, and others have been committed to prison for contempt.

          I don’t seek to convince you as to the invalidity of ‘Freeman’ theory. In my opinion its flaws should be obvious even to the legally uninitiated. But let me take issue with the point you make that ‘Freemen’ consent to common law (I deliberately avoid using ‘stand under’ as this is ‘Freeman’ language: they believe that ‘do you understand?’ really means ‘do you consent to my jurisdiction?’, which is nonsense).

          My question is this: why common law? If you believe that laws passed by Parliament are undemocratic, then common law is even more so: it was instituted by an absolute monarch, and has been added to over hundreds of years by unelected judges and Law Lords. Furthermore it would permit behaviours that we would find unconscionable in modern society. For example, if we discard all statute law, then the now-restored common-law age of sexual consent is 12. I’m charitably assuming that supporters of ‘Freeman’ theories wouldn’t go so far as to accept that, but if they only recognise common law then they have no choice.

          It all comes down to this: no amount of shouting ‘no jurisdiction’, or asking for written oaths, or scrawling ‘no contract’ in red crayon, or asking for an ‘actual accounting’, or claiming maritime jurisdiction, or anything else in the ‘Freeman’ magic bucket of legal trickery will get you anywhere in the existing system. That is my one and only point – and for the avoidance of doubt I stick to my belief that the vast majority of these people try to escape justice for selfish reasons alone.

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