The ‘What?’ and ‘Why?’ of Problem Questions
Problem questions are one of the main types of question used to assess students’ knowledge and progress on law courses. They are also used in tutorials and discussions to help students develop the skill of being able to apply law beyond the scope of decided cases.
The basic form of a problem question is:
- a description of a, usually hypothetical, series of events; and
- an instruction the advise one or more of the people involved in these events.
Do not expect problem questions to have an obvious answer – or even only one possible right answer. Problem questions are not designed simply to test whether you know the answer to a particular question. Rather, they test your:
- knowledge of the relevant law (including specific cases and statutory provisions, as well as the concepts and principles); and
- ability to apply the concepts you have learnt (that is, use them to develop a reasoned response to the questions asked).
A good answer to a problem question will:
- describe the most likely legal outcome of the facts stated;
- explain why the relevant cases and statutes mean that this particular result is the most likely; and
- explain why other possibilities are less likely).
Consequently, before approaching a problem question, it is essential that you have:
- a good grasp of the relevant rules (specific cases and statutes as well as the general principles);
- the ability to use this knowledge to identify the legal issues raised by the question; and
- the ability to apply the legal rules to the facts of the question in order to address these issues.
Simply learning the cases and the statutes that you are studying is not enough. From as early as possible in your study of law, you need to be identifying the specific issues that particular cases and statutes address and why they deal with them in the way that they do. If you know why a case was decided in a particular way, you will be able to use this knowledge to decide whether a case with slightly different facts will (or should) have the same result.