Guest post by 3rd year JD student Daniel Gregoric.
I Practice Makes Perfect
One of the best things you can do to prepare for the Principles of Public Law exam is to do practice questions or practice exams, and get feedback on them.
You can do practice questions and practice exams before you have finished all of your notes. In addition to the practice exercises in your Reading Guide, you can find past PPL exams on the Digital Exam Repository. To get started on an untimed practice exam or practice problem, use the reading guide, as well as your notes from class. Use these as your ‘table of contents’, and from there you can re-read any materials that look relevant to answering the question if needed.
Issue spotting is a difficult skill which you need to develop over time, so do not be put off if practice questions or practice exams take you a long time at first. Just try your best to write a full answer to the question. Practice using headings and, if you’re not planning to type the exam, practice your handwriting. If you are worried that your handwriting is hard to read, consider writing on every second line and get in the habit of underlining the law you reference (this will make it easier for your marker to spot it on the page).
It is important to get feedback, because if you don’t, there is a risk that you won’t know when you are going down the wrong track. By getting feedback, you will also hopefully pick up on any important gaps in your notes. You can get feedback in classes which cover a practice question or practice exam and, in some cases, your lecturer will offer to provide individualised feedback on your attempts (take them up on the offer!). You might also organise a study group and compare answers to a specific question or practice exam. Ideally, you will all be in the same stream, because each lecturer may teach in a different way.
Starting practice exams early will help to minimise the risk of ‘freezing up’ during the exam, and will also help your note taking by developing your eye for what is relevant and what is not.
II Develop Your Eye for What is Relevant
A couple of important things to keep in the back of your mind whilst you tackle a PPL question are: (a) ‘principles’; and, (b) the interaction between international law and domestic law.
Principles of Public Law is about, amongst other things, ‘principles’. A thorough knowledge of the principles, and the ability to apply them, will be extremely helpful for two reasons.
First, in some contexts, you will apply principles such as responsible government or the separation of powers in a way similar to how you apply the ratio from a case. For instance, while a case on a given point is preferable, there are some scenarios where there is an absence of clear authority on a point. In these situations, the next best thing is to reason from principle.
Secondly, and more importantly, many of the principles covered in PPL are fundamental to the common law system. It is the fundamental and overarching nature of the principles which makes them so important. The principles are at the core of the subject and are not just for essays. They help to put the remainder of the course material in its correct context.
PPL covers a very broad range of material. Many students observe that it is difficult to understand how the seminars relate to one another. A thorough understanding of the ‘principles’ will help you to draw the wide range of materials covered in PPL together.
B The Interaction Between International Law and Domestic Law
The crossover area between international law and domestic law is at the heart of PPL. PPL is concerned with the way in which international law and domestic law interact. It is useful to be aware of the focus on the interaction between international and domestic law in PPL, and to look out for this focus in the questions.
III Become Familiar with the Relevant Treaty, Legislative and Constitutional Provisions
A key skill for the PPL exam is the ability to control and utilise the treaty, legislative and constitutional provisions covered in the subject. These sources of law, whilst different, will require a similar process when it comes to exam preparation. In short, whether in legislation, treaties, or a constitution, there are a lot of provisions and a system will be required to organise the chaos.
In all likelihood this is the first time you have had to deal with provisions and be examined on how they work. They are not light reading for anyone, so don’t feel like you are the only one who finds this part of law school difficult.
Given it is likely to be your first time doing this, it may be useful to collate all of the relevant legislation and treaties into a hard copy lever arch binder, with dividers as appropriate. The advantage of doing this over copy / pasting the provisions into your notes is that you will become familiar with the provisions in their context, and it will potentially be more convenient to browse for relevant provisions.
You will want only the relevant provisions, so as not to cause distraction, as well as the table of contents if there is one. The table of contents helps you to understand the structure of the legislation, which is useful when provisions cross reference to ‘part II’ or ‘chapter 3’, for instance.
To work out which provisions are relevant, it is likely that you will need to review your class notes and list the provisions of each statute or treaty in the reading guide or mentioned in class. Any provisions on this list which you don’t already have in hard copy as part of your subject materials would then be printed and collated. If you have an entire statute or treaty which has been assigned, but not mentioned in class, then ask your lecturer about it before you print the entire act. The hope is that minimal printing will be required as you already have most of the relevant provisions printed in your subject materials.
The goal, if you do choose to employ this method, is to have a binder of all the relevant provisions, which is edited so that there are no irrelevant provisions to distract you. You could perhaps mark-up the margins by hand as you go with any analysis of the provisions which has been offered by your lecturer. Then, when you tackle a practice question or practice exam, you can flick through your binder as you try to spot issues and answer the question, and access all relevant provisions and analysis in one place.
Thus, collating the relevant provisions, potentially by using a lever arch folder, will make it more convenient for you to practice applying the provisions assigned. In turn, you will hopefully start to remember the provisions and their implications better.
IV Keep an Eye on the News
Finally, it is worthwhile to keep an eye on the news. Public law is continually in the news, and an understanding of the current discourse in politics will be useful because it is not unusual for PPL questions to be ‘topical’. A working knowledge of current affairs will help you to put any such questions into their correct context.