The Scots Law Student

The SLS : Life and trials of learning law in Scotland

Month: June, 2008

A different definition of Alibi

Just a quick definition post here but it’s far too good to hide away in my glossary of terms.

I’ve already got alibi listed in the glossary and as all law students who have done their semester of Criminal Law know :

alibi Lat, [I was] “somewhere else.” A special defence providing a complete defence from any accusations if accepted. As it is a special defence the defending counsel must submit it in advance of the trial beginning and defending counsel must accept the burden of proof to prove that the person truly could not commit the crime. The Criminal Law Deskbook of Criminal Procedure states: “Alibi is different from all of the other defenses…it is based upon the premise that the defendant is truly innocent.”

However, in the words of “Ireland’s International Comedian” Hal Roach:

“The judge said to Murphy, “Are you guilty or not?” Murphy said said, “I don’t know until I hear the evidence and that’s my alibi.”

The judge said, “Don’t you know what an alibi is?” Murphy said” Yes, your honour, an alibi is to be after proving that your weren’t where you were when you committed the offence that you didn’t commit at all, and what’s more I wasn’t there at the time.”

Now that’s one to remember when you start to practice drafting pleadings.

I know a little of that copy looks odd so I’ve included the original for the quote here:

I know some of that quote looks dodgy so I decided I\'d show the original here

Advertisements

How to generate pdfs of books or case reports while in the library

I’ve been looking at programs which may help me in my studies. One of the most promising I’ve found is one which is intended to allow people to create multi page pdf copies of any documents, books, whiteboards or cards they can photograph. The whiteboard mode is surprising and I’m not certain it fits into my current teaching style, however, there is nothing quite like being able to see exactly what the teacher has written on a whiteboard long after the lesson has finished.

It’s called Snapter and I’m pleasantly surprised with how effective it is. I tested it out with my camera phone and a copy of 100 Cases Every Scots Law Student Should Know and and as long as you remember to abide by the rules the program gives you: take the photos from straight above with the spine vertical in the image then you can reliably create a very readable pdf from the images. It’s not a quick process, and it’s almost certainly the most processor intensive application you will ever use for your legal studies but the results are very surprising and usable. I’ve done an example here with Scott Adam’s “Way of the Weasel” which I chose because it includes text boxes and images alongside text – so it’s actually more complicated to scan than most law textbooks.

Snapter has a deceptively simple design of interface for what is a powerful program with many features and controls hidden in the boxes, for the best results you should set the controls each time you use Snapter but the defaults manage well on their own. I found the most useful option was the “original size

Basic photographic principles apply If you used a higher resolution camera and better lens with a tripod you would see better results than these, these test shots came from my 3.2Megapixel SE k800i camera phone which I chose because it’s the only camera I routinely take to the library. Users with newer phones with 5 or more megapixel cameras will almost certainly find that the pdfs produced are extremely readable even on small text. I intend to use Snapter to replace my photocopying, this makes the $50 pricetag for the full version (needed to fully enable the program’s Book mode after the free trial expires) extremely affordable. With photocopying running at about 3-6p per sheet the expense of photocopying personal copies of cases becomes substantial. Also, filing the vast amounts of photocopying which you naturally generate as a law student is a task which requires considerable discipline to avoid the dreaded student “pile of paper under the desk”, being able to directly create pdfs of reference books without needing to photocopy them is more economical and more ecological, with the added advantage of not being able to lose the files as easily as the photocopies.

There are other book scanning solutions but these tend to rely on the user being able to scan the book using a specially designed flatbed scanner(for example the PlusTek Optiscan) which is less than ideal in a law library. Snapter’s advantage comes from the convenience of being able to take a record of the exact text you need on the fly using nothing other than the devices you would already be carrying.

You can use it to inexpensively produce copies of cases for other people as well, instead of needing to recopy each page of your own photocopy for others you can simply email the pdf around, and you can also do the processing on your laptop as you are in the library, all while using your university’s reproduction licence. It’s not the fastest process so be aware that it will both drain battery life and take its time but it’s the only example of automatically transforming photos of books into documents that I’ve seen.  It’ll save paper, money and the environment in its own small way.

The direct competitor to this are the online legal databases which also give you the option of downloading a digital copy of the report to your computer and I find these a better option than hurriedly produced snapter pdfs, however, Westlaw does not provide copies of textbooks nor does it provide copies of cases which are either very old or very obscure and it is these situations where snapter shines.  If your law library provides paper copies of journals or law reports which are not available online in full text format then you need some way to make a copy for yourself.

With many of the most sought after books only available on loan from the library for a matter of hours a student may sometimes find that they spend the entire time they have with the book running it through a photocopier instead of reading it. A fast camera can take photos of every page of a textbook within a university’s stort loan time, this means that books which are extremely sought after (for example the set textbook) can be copied out. The prohibitive expense of photocopying a textbook is considerably lessened when you are operating in the fixed cost of a digital camera and a copy of Snapter, and remember that with law textbooks retailing for around £40 (and science subjects cost even more) from the university bookshop any use that a student can get from the library is to be pounced on.

For those students who are also looking using snapter to produce copies of music, students in Glasgow can use the libraries of other higher education institutions, including the Glasgow School of Art and the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama on a reference only basis which means that you can use the RSAMD to find sheet music for yourself.  I read here that Snapter was less impressive at capturing music books but I disagree based on my experiences using the newest version.

I was so surprised that snapter gave such poor results on capturing music that I immediately grabbed a book of scales off my shelf and tried it for myself, I believe I have a newer version than was tested since I downloaded my copy last night. Again, I used a Sony Ericsson k800i camera phone which is only 3.2Mpx and although some of the text is smudged (small bold text had a harder time of it) because of the resolution and the height I had to take the picture at to get both pages in frame the edges of the picture were detected perfectly and there was no issue seeing marks on semiquavers or the like.

I’m all for snapter, I think it’s designed for times you couldn’t bring an automated book scanner with you – in my case when I’m at the reference library and it does very well using even phone photos in those situations. It beats having to scan photocopies at home or having no copy at all, that’s for sure. I think it will provide a very important service for students above all, but remember that the possiblity to generate digital versions of paperwork is often very useful even just for collaboration with other people by email. For instance emailing digital copies of forms to other professionals. Consider Snapter to be an extremely flexible (allowing for the easily foxed edge detection), inexpensive digitiser which can be used anywhere that a photocopier or a scanner would also work, with much less footprint and less time spent with the original.

Highers for law school

The higher grades you need to enter a law school in Scotland are strict but not picky- I sat a particularly high number of exams when I was at school because I wanted the challenge (and couldn’t decide which class not to take) but there’s no reason that you can’t go directly from 5th year with 5 strong highers – the SQA system is pretty much entirely dependent on your grades. Your personal statement, unless you are applying to oversubscribed courses, will not come into the decision, in my experience. 5As or 4AB will put your place pretty much beyond doubt but it is still perfectly possible to enter law school with some advanced highers and a little less from 5th year than this; it’s actually what I did. I went for a very balanced set of humanities and sciences that I was interested in and felt comfortable doing and went on to blank horribly on a previously extremely strong subject and finished up missing my entry requirements by a mark in the exam. These things happen in life, I reapplied the next year and now I’m enjoying the summer break before my second year.

As long as you get the letters from your exams, avoiding vocational subjects, you will be pretty much halfway to accepted by law school of your choice. UCAS needs done on time but it shouldn’t be a huge nightmare for you in fifth or sixth year. You should ideally aim for subjects you will succeed in, that is- score an A. 5As is a fantastic achievement but it is not all that rare and it is not limited to people who sail through on luck, a reasonable amount of work and strategic selection of subjects will get you there too. Having 5As leaves your options wide open and is well worth having even if you are not considering a degree in medicine or law so everyone should put as much effort as possible into their highers, they really are life altering exam results. That said, lower results are still salvageable, just make sure you are sitting 5 in one exam diet.  Skills you already possess are ideal as are good foundations to skill based CVs – my interest in computing was fantastic because I was more than comfortable right up to Advanced Higher, so I scored highly, and computer literacy is a pretty much essential skill to mention on any CV.

The other issue is LNAT, should your school of choice want it. I’ve sat this twice, once in fifth and once in sixth year and still don’t like it as a judging tool. It does however pretty much work out who can reason with words but doesn’t give people a lot of opportunity to work hard to compete with naturally gifted people, in the profession there’s a lot of natural talent but the willingness to work is a very big point in anyone’s favour. It’s not a particularly difficult test, especially because, just like in real law school you aren’t competing with the score instead you’re competing on the curve of everyone else. If you get over average consider yourself safe, any interviews you need have most likely been earned at this point. After you appear at interviews don’t worry if you only scored a point or two over the average score – it’ll be your performance at the interview which distinguishes you from the others so concentrate on giving it your best shot.

I personally feel that you shouldn’t learn substantive law before the start of your course, reading ahead is fine and well but I disagree with the idea of starting off with an entirely new sphere of work while still studying at the high end of your previous level. If you have family or educator friends who can gently ease you into law school preparation then you honestly don’t need this blog and go with the advice they give you, your comments would be very much appreciated. If you try to learn law from books on your own you might end up in the total wrong end of the park from your lecturers and that will create difficulties when you move to law school – you’re going to law school to learn how to be flexible and adaptable with the law as opposed to already knowing it before you arrive. In fact, I started to apply for Cambridge out of curiosity in my 6th year but decided that needing to start reading up on the subject, in advance, was excessive on top of already heavy school workloads and withdrew from the process. The fact that I would need to re-naturalise to practice in Scotland after taking a challenging degree didn’t spur me on much either.

In your fifth and sixth years lots of As (band 1s are nice but don’t matter in the long run) are far more important than having the finer points of delict under your belt before you meet a single teacher, the time for reading ahead is during summer after the holidays (if at all).  Request a book list from your university, pick one or a couple of the books up used from Amazon and read simple casebooks, Law Basics books and maybe even have a look (don’t buy) at reference copies of the institutional writers like Hume, MacBryde, Bell, Stair to see what you make of them.  But before the exams is SQA studying time.

Once you have accepted your place on your course of choice prepare to enjoy your last lazy summer as much as you can and be ready for a shock when you arrive in autumn. It is technically possible to sign onto job seekers allowance in your between school and university period so this is worth trying to bolster your finances, you could also get a job and this is probably a much more sensible idea to prevent you stopping entirely for months. After you start law school you will work your fingers to the bone and will only slowly begin to realise what the competition between the students themselves means. You have already jumped through more hoops to get to your course than most other students – those of you who were interviewed for your place will know this better than anyone and the people who are left in the course are determined and driven. This of course includes you, even if you don’t feel determined or driven right now it will grow on you as your course progresses. Law school shapes you into a very effective graduate and is a great start on life.

Although, I still think I’m crazy for doing law as a first degree, I’m missing out on all the fun the social sciences guys are having, but I’m gaining from the experience for everything I lose in time at the student’s union.

The most unlikely law study aid ever?

As I am an avid reader and notorious for it, it’s not unusual for me to get books at Christmas, and last year I received a copy of Derren Brown “Tricks of the Mind“. This book, although not ever intended specifically for it, may actually become the most unususal law study aid I have thus far tried.

My reason for this conclusion – the title of Part 3 : “Memory”

A law student needs to remember a great deal for closed book exams and this is a common complaint – I’ve already written about the issue in the short time this blog has been established.

Now, in no way am I suggesting that reading Brown should supercede reading Gane & Stoddard but any law student, any student whatsoever, on reading him recount listing Shakespeare’s plays in chronological order of their being written by mentally walking a path through a theatre wishes to God that he’s giving a genuine tip that might help him to remember, for example, common law case lines. Teasingly, Derren Brown himself studied law while at university and applies his system to remembering a case name and year – very promising stuff.  For those interested, it’s Pharmaceuticals Society of Great Britain v Boots Cash Chemists 1953.

For example, a very common problem seen before the court is that of parties making a mistake in their contract or their understanding of it and disputes arising from it. Obviously not all mistakes are equal so the law has created a series of tiers and definitions of these – one of which is Unilateral Error, the induced version being close to misrepresentation and ending with the contract becoming voidable and I learnt that the cases of Morrisson v Robertson and Shogun Finance Ltd v Hudson told me the common law principles that govern this form of error. However, should that unilateral error be uninduced then the issue is much more unclear and I have to remember that MacBryde has written authority on exactly this issue so it would be good to be able to quote it and I know that case wise it was decided in 1875 through the case of Steuart’s Trs v Hart that mala fides, knowledge and non-disclosure were relevant factors. This seems fine and reasonably memorable, however, as far as I understand it in 1890 Stewart v Kennedy pretty much denied the very existence of uninduced unilateral error, instead prefering “error plus” and declared that it had to be induced to be effective and that was upheld and followed several times as recently as 1990, that’s confusing but it sounds like the later cases have superceded the earlier one. However in 1992 Angus v Bryden went back to the 1875 case and decided that knowledge and bad faith were once again indeed remediable faults.

Thus, there were two lines of active case law operating in the same area of law and a lot of authoritative cases, which cruelly happen to have the same sounding name. This is the kind of situation where you need a visual alternative to a sound and it is the kind of thing that Brown teaches in his book – moving everything to images, even using rhyme to convert numbers to images. It’s a fantastic plan but I’ve always been concerned that it seems like more work than just learning the facts as they stand. I think if you managed to leverage the visual memory system that he advocates you would see a marked improvement in your ability to recall facts and their relationships with other facts and that would pay off very well.

Just as you need to be able to read quickly in law school, a good memory for what you have taken in is essential if you want to get the most out of your reading and note taking. There is nothing like struggling to remember if a case was anomalous because it was decided after a landmark authority or came before and represented the established way of thinking and remembering cases as, for example, things on plinths in alcoves of a hallway (my attempt at transferring this method to contract law) would help you remember if the case came before or after another. Physically remembering the year on the case report which you studied is my current method for exam preparation but I think it is too fleeting, I effectively bulk up on rapidly memorised facts and stomp into the exam hall and forget everything I ever knew in the stress (large blocks of higher maths are no longer clear memories to me).

However, I was watching one of his TV series, Trick or Treat, on channel 4 and spotted the mother-lode of research gifts. In that he apparently managed to get a regular human being, Glen, to record the contents of a library by dragging his fingers down each page in a book and sort of glancing at the page.

Let me tell you, I’m an authority on sort of glancing at the page while studying and I’m pretty certain it doesn’t work. If it did work though, that is an unbelievable system which seriously changes how schooling will happen around the world. Until then I will dream on that the speed reading + eidetic memory is as effective and as effortless as Derren has made out.

The fact that Glen, a man who by all accounts cited his poor memory as a failing when he applied to go on the show single handedly managed to beat off all but one team in the All England Pub Quiz just rubs my quiz loving nose in it. I literally had a daydream while watching the show of being able to do that with Stair, Hume, the dear Scots Law Times and basically the rest of the library too. It’s a dream of students on reading heavy courses to be able to speed it up, so improved retention and improved speed will both help and I realised I needed to make this a priority.

Derren, aside from his sometimes evil nature, is very entertaining and I make a point of watching the majority of his shows as they’re broadcast. I would never go to see him live because he’s a scary man but I’ll watch him on TV and cheer him on from a safe distance. This is a man who has rolled a human being -tied up in a sack- into a lake and not been particularly shook up about it.

In the words of Charlie Brooker, my favourite columnist for the Guardian, Derren Brown is:

“Clearly the best dinner-party guest in history – he’s either a balls-out con artist or the scariest man in Britain.”

Amen to that.

Software for law school

Having shelled out for your shiny new (or shiny used, both suit law school) computer you will need to fill it with software. You will not find yourself needing a great deal of software for your study at law school – as requirements go it’s a pretty straightforward list.

Firstly, you will need a word processor, this is a given at law school and it will be difficult to use a computer without one for any school. Generally the only requirement is that you submit marked work in a format which your law school can understand – in my case this means .doc (or .rtf, but you lose some of the features of the former). These formats cover nearly every word processing system in the world. .Doc is officially Microsoft Word’s format but it has been reverse engineered a number of times over the years and is now available in nearly all competing products.

I personally use Microsoft Word 2007 for writing my papers and even these posts but there are a number of extremely good competing programs available. The most famous is probably OpenOffice.org which is available for all the systems a law student would consider using, the best element in OO.o’s favour is that is sold free. Another is Google Docs which has the advantage of letting you access any documents you have written using a web browser – this avoids problems of leaving files on your computer at home. You are able to edit the documents as you would in any other word processor and, like the others, this also supports .doc. If you are willing to convert files between programs you may be interested in using a program such as DarkRoom (originally seen on the Mac as WhiteRoom) which allows you to simply write onto the screen with no other distractions, it’s a good move if you’re using your computer for taking typed notes, but beware – DarkRoom lacks features such as a spellcheck, word count, most certainly does not complete words for you and cannot save in .doc format, but never the less it is an entirely different way of writing which can avoid you being distracted by any other items on the screen and that is a valuable .

Secondly, presentation software – today you can often use the Powerpoint slides that a professor has lectured with to help you study. These files are a lot less compatible with competing products but I have had good results from both OpenOffice’s presenter and Google’s in displaying the slides. Fortunately the first casualties in a compatibility problem are fancy effects while you are really only concerned with the content of the slide. PC and Mac versions are available for each of the options given. OpenOffice and Google Docs will also run straight away using Linux if anyone wishes to use that option – probably most likely on an ultra low cost laptop like an EeePC. Running Microsoft Office on these ultra low cost laptops is very possible but somewhat more convoluted.

Third is a good pdf reader. I happen to prefer PDFs to doc files for files I want to have a permanent, read only record of – like case reports. I would not want to run the risk of having accidentally erased part of a case which I would like to later rely on and it also helps me physically distinguish my own work from research at a glance.

Options abound for pdf readers, Adobe’s own free Acrobat Reader is very effective but is becoming increasingly bulky with features added which are not necessarily helpful. You may get better performance from a lighter program such as Foxit Reader which provides the same functionality – you’ll still be able to read your case reports but you’ll also be able to annotate it as well, which is a major advantage that the free Acrobat Reader can’t do, the $299 version of Acrobat can but that’s extremely expensive and not really intended for students to use. All of the major legal databases provide an option to save cases to your computer in pdf format so this makes a lot of sense while researching.

Finally, a web browser, as mentioned there is such a thing as a online legal database which you will use a lot at law school, my personal favourite is Westlaw but there are many others available which provide subtly different sources and interfaces for you to use, some resources such as HUDOC (the European Court of Humans Right’s portal) are nigh on essential for taking part in some classes. I’m still waiting for someone to develop some form of meta search for these but I think that day cannot be long off. Through these your web browser will give you access to case reports, journal articles and legislation. In fact, the internet is rapidly becoming the best research tool you have. Critically, your university library will almost certainly use an electronic record service, this may allow you to browse the catalogue and reserve books until you travel to the library physically, one of the sneakier moves is to reserve books from the lecture hall as they’re announced to improve your chances of getting the rare library copies of assigned textbooks. This saves a lot of time looking for books and time saved away from fruitlessly perusing the stacks is worth its weight in gold when you are working hard on assignments. Your web browser will probably be the only program that you use for degree work more than your word processor.

I should mention that LexisNexis has changed greatly since even I started my law degree and is much more responsive when used with a browser other than Microsoft Internet Explorer. I was disapointed with the need for Lexis to reload its sources page every time I clicked one box, as opposed to letting me select a number at once, this has now been fixed and the main draw of Lexis – the dizzing array of searchable sources – can now be properly used in Opera and other non Internet explorer browser. This also makes the choice of using a Mac or Linux computer a better option than it used it to be as there is no loss of functionality when using Lexis.

My copies of Word and Powerpoint are official versions which came as part of Microsoft Office 2007 Ultimate, normally this is hugely excessive and I would not recommend it but in the first part of my first year Microsoft started a teachers and students only service allowing them to buy the Ultimate version for £40 if they could provide a valid .ac.uk email address, which I consider reasonable enough to purchase, considering that I will use the program for years as it has all the functionality that I need. Had this deal not come around I was planning to use OpenOffice but decided that I wanted to use OneNote so this made the deal very good.

OneNote is really a good program – it provides you with a mixed media digital notebook, it lets you combine your pdf case reports, typed (or recorded) lecture notes and supports handwriting support. I’ve even been able to use the movie insert function for webcasts. It means that all your notes are combined into one searchable form, and searches are not always perfect for law students to use (I advise everyone to avoid searching for words when reading cases), but being able to find specific points in textbooks or lecture notes (like being able to search for “remedies” for instance) very quickly is a great time saver which would have taken a good deal longer even with a casual scan through yourself. I find the virtual printer that it adds to your system indispensible as a way of getting a permanent record of a page without using a printer. I also use OneNote as a way of saving my receipts from online shops without wasting paper, if it should happen that I need to print a copy of the timestamped record off – I have one stored in OneNote.

Computers have really revolutionised the way that people study law and if you plan out your methods in advance you can really benefit from having a computer with you while on campus. Don’t underestimate how much of your degree can be solved through books and there’s nothing worse than reading a book later in the year and realising it would have been helpful.

I personally try to do as much research as possible online, as far as finding reports and journal articles goes – simply because photocopying begins to be a considerable cost when you factor in the amount of reading that we have to do – and not to mention that I find myself sidetracked by getting into conversations with people once I’m at the library. I also prefer having a .pdf record of the case on my usb stick rather than a thick and heavy paper stack in my bookcase, not to mention the effect this must have on the environment. When presenting you should have a hard copy of the case or article which you are relying on, ideally with a copy to hand out to the significant parties, such as the other side and the judge during a moot, ready to hand in case clarification on a point you do not personally remember is called for but when researching to type up assignments there is a lot less difficulty in simply using the copy on your computer, especially for bibliographical data.