A Guide to Fighting First Year Fears

A Guide to Fighting First Year Fears

Starting a law undergraduate degree is definitely a tough process but with this nifty guide to the basics of your first year, you should find yourselves a little more comfortable!

Criminal Law

Key terms: mens rea and actus reus

‘Mens rea’ and ‘actus reus’ are Latin for ‘guilty mind’ and ‘guilty act’, respectively, and are two fundamental elements in criminal law. The ‘mens rea’ is the mental state of the defendant and the ‘actus reus’ refers to the act they have done. The two elements must coincide for an act to be deemed a crime. For example, borrowing a pencil from somebody is not a crime until you decide to keep it; then it becomes theft.

The Law of Attempts

Inchoate offences are those which are not fully carried out but can still be enough to convict a defendant. There are four types of inchoate offences: attempts, conspiracy, incitement and solicitation. Attempts are governed by the Criminal Attempts Act 1981, where the defendant can be found guilty if their actions were ‘more than merely preparatory’ to the commission of the full offence.

Key case: R v Geddes [1996] Crim LR 894
The case of Geddes is very famous in this area of law, especially due to its controversial nature. Here, the defendant was found in the boys’ toilets at a primary school with a rope, knife and masking tape. Although he was convicted, on appeal he argued that there was no real way of deciding whether an act was ‘more than merely preparatory’. Eventually, the court concluded that in order for an act to become ‘more than merely preparatory’, the defendant has to have entered the mental state of mind required to fulfil the crime. In this case, the defendant had not made any contact with the children at the school, and so his appeal was upheld.

Manslaughter and drugs

There are two types of manslaughter in Criminal Law: voluntary and involuntary. There are two types of involuntary manslaughter: gross negligence manslaughter and constructive manslaughter. Constructive manslaughter is death which is caused as a result of the defendant committing criminal offence – for example, killing somebody by exceeding the speed limit on a road (which is contrary to the Road Traffic Act 1934). Gross negligence manslaughter, however, relies on the principle of a duty of care which, upon the defendant’s breach of it, caused the death of the victim.

Key cases: R v Kennedy [2007] 3 WLR 612 and R v Evans [2009] 2 Cr App R 10

These two cases are crucial in the criminal law of drugs and manslaughter. In Kennedy, the defendant supplied the victim with drugs, who died after injecting himself with them. It was held that the defendant in this regard could never be held guilty of manslaughter if the victim voluntarily self-administered the drugs as a fully informed and responsible adult. However, in Evans, the victim’s older sister (and mother) was convicted of gross negligence manslaughter, even though the victim had voluntarily injected herself. The distinction here was that the defendant owed her younger sister a duty of care, which she breached when she did not call for help. This duty of care was formed because the defendant had supplied the drugs to her younger sister and had therefore created a ‘dangerous situation’.

Tort Law

Tort Law is the study of civil liability, its name originating from the French word for ‘wrong’. The focus of Tort Law is often on the judicial decision making in cases and less on statutory provisions (unlike Criminal Law). The distinction between Tort, or Civil, Law and Criminal Law is that civil cases are brought forward privately (by people against other people), whereas criminal cases involve the prosecution of the defendant by the Crown.


Negligence is the core of the Law of Torts. It refers to the action (or inaction) of the tortfeasor, who ought to have acted differently to avoid the consequential harm to the claimant.

For defendants of social utility, such as firefighters, courts are less likely to attribute blame, as their importance outweighs the harm.
The first principle of negligence is the concept of a ‘duty of care’. This principle is governed by Caparo Industries plc v Dickman [1990] 2 AC 605 (also known as ‘Caparo v Dickman‘). The three-stage test to determine a ‘duty of care’ is to see whether harm to the claimant was foreseeable; whether there was proximity (i.e. a relationship) between the claimant and defendant and whether imposing a duty is fair, just and reasonable. Previously, the test to decide a ‘duty of care’ merged the existence of a relationship (proximity) and foreseeability of harm, which resulted in confusion and the possibility of an unlimited list of claimants.

The next step in determining negligence is to look at the ‘breach of duty’. Courts look at four factors when determining this: whether the degree of risk involved was great; whether the cost of precautions were great; whether the risk of serious injury was great and the importance of the activity. For defendants of social utility, such as firefighters, courts are less likely to attribute blame, as their importance outweighs the harm.

Third, is the concept of ‘causation’. This is a simple test, colloquially called the ‘but for’ test. This determines whether the defendant was at fault by asking whether their breach of duty was the cause of the harm. However, the issue becomes more complex when there is more than one possible cause.

Finally, the harm must have been reasonably foreseeable. In the case of Bourhill v Young [1943] AC 92, for example, it was not reasonably foreseeable that the pregnant claimant would suffer a miscarriage as a result of experiencing shock after witnessing a motor accident.

Strict liability

Although ‘fault’ is required in most cases in Tort Law, there are some occasions where people can be sued successfully without the need of a fault. This is called ‘strict liability’ and it is where the defendant is in the wrong, regardless of any intention.

Property Law

Freehold estates

A ‘freehold’ is the ownership of a property and can also be described as a ‘fee simple absolute’. A freehold must be over property which cannot be moved and the ownership must not be for a determined period of time. If the period of time is already set, then it is a ‘leasehold’ (e.g. renting a flat).


Easements are rights over a piece of land. For example, a right of way, the right to receive light, etc.

Key Case: Re Ellenborough Park [1955] EWCA Civ 4

In this landmark case, the four criteria for identifying easements were created.

Firstly, there must be a dominant and servient tenement. A dominant tenement is the ‘main’ land which is benefitting from the easement and a servient tenement is the land which the easement affects.

Secondly, the easement must be of benefit to the dominant land. Third, the dominant and servient tenements should be different owners, as it is impossible to hold an easement over your own land.

Finally, the right must be able to form a grant, which is made in five ways. There must be a capable grantor and grantee, meaning that both parties must be mentally sound, of full age and have property interests in the dominant and servient land. Secondly, the right must be definite and not vague. Rights such as ‘rights to a good TV signal’ (Hunter v Canary Wharf Ltd [1997] UKHL 14) have been deemed too vague. Thirdly, the right must already exist (although courts can create new easements, they do not often do so). Fourth, the right cannot make the servient owner responsible for any action. Finally, the right cannot totally exclude the servient owner. Excessive use of the servient land to park cars is one example of this.

Restrictive covenants

A covenant is a form of promise made between a buyer and a seller regarding the land. Restrictive (or negative) covenants, in particular, are agreements to not do something on the land, for example, to not use the land for commercial purposes. Covenants ‘run’ with the land and not with the owner of the land. These promises can ‘run’ for a very long period of time (some date back centuries). This also means that all future owners are also subject to the covenants.

Key case: Tulk v Moxhay [1848] 41 ER 1143

Tulk v Moxhay is a key case in this area of Property Law, as it decided the requirements to which a covenant can run. One requirement is that the covenant must touch and concern the land. This is to say that the promise held between the two parties must relate to the land and not to the owner of the land. Three additional requirements must also be met: the original parties must have intended for the burden to run; the party to be burdened should have had notice of it and the burdened party must hold a property interest in the land.

Public Law

Public Law is the study of the constitutional framework of the United Kingdom and the way the law intervenes in political (governmental and parliamentary) areas.

The role of the judiciary

In the UK, the political system is divided into three branches: the Government (Executive), the Parliament (Legislative) and the Judicial (Judiciary). Unlike other jurisdictions, such as the United States, judges in the UK have limited powers. Judges have the duty of making sure the law made in Parliament is satisfactory under superseding legal spheres, such as the laws made by the European Union or the Human Rights Act 1998. If a bill is against these, the judges can only make a recommendation in the form of judicial review. However, due to the doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty, these reviews are not always recognised.

Statutory interpretation

‘Statutory interpretation is not a science, but an art’ is a famous quote which epitomises the various ways judges have gone about interpreting statutes.

The Literal Rule suggests that Acts of Parliament must be interpreted word for word, so as to retain the original wording of Parliament. It is a mis-assumption, however, that this would also retain Parliament’s original intention. Words and concepts are often changing in the English language, and so this rule is not always used.

As a remedy to the above, the Golden Rule was adopted to avoid ‘absurd’ conclusions of interpretations. This rule is an extension to the Literal Rule: the ordinary meaning of the words is applied. However, if the meaning leads to an absurd conclusion, the judge can change the meaning or decide to use an alternate one.

Judges can also use the Mischief Rule to determine which ‘mischief’ the statute was intended to correct, in order to apply the same intention to the case. Support for this is strong as it co-operates with parliamentary sovereignty and does not lead to an absurd result.

Finally, the Purposive Approach was suggested in 1969 and was adopted thereafter. It takes its form based on the stance of European courts and uses several internal and external sources to determine the purpose of the legislation. Internal sources are those which are part of the legislation, such as its preamble, whereas external sources include parliamentary notes and bills.

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