This is the first in an occasional series of guest posts by people I have taught. The series aims to give a flavour of the range of things that Law graduates go on to do. This post is by Peter Yates, who is currently working at the Law Commission.
I studied Law at St Catharine’s College, Cambridge, and graduated in 2010. After that, I did an LLM in Public International Law at UCL, as well as some legal work, internships and volunteering. Now, I am a research assistant in the Law Commission’s criminal law team. This post should hopefully give you an idea of what this interesting and challenging role involves, as well as some information about the Commission’s work.
The Law Commission is the law reform body for England and Wales (there are similar organisations in Scotland, Northern Ireland, Ireland, Australia and New Zealand). Although it is a statutory organisation funded by the state, it is independent of the government of the day. The Commission’s role is to review areas of law which are unfair, outdated or unnecessarily complicated and to propose new laws which are fair, modern, simple and cost-effective.
The Commission is split up into four teams, each of which deals with a different area of law – each team will have a number of reform projects on the go at any one time. The criminal law team is currently looking at the law on insanity and automatism, contempt of court and kidnapping. In addition to the four law reform teams, there is another team whose task it is to remove ancient and redundant laws from the statute book.
Once an area of law has been included in the Commission’s programme of reform (on the basis of a recommendation from judges, lawyers, government departments, the voluntary and business sectors or the general public), the Commission produces a “consultation paper”, which sets out the current law, identifies any defects and proposes some potential reforms. Consultation papers are circulated widely to interested organisations and individuals and to the media. Anyone can respond to one of the Commission’s open consultations. This process of consultation is crucial to ensure that the law reform process is fair and effective – hearing from people who are experts in that particular area of the law, or who have experienced it in practice, gives legitimacy to the Commission’s reform proposals.
After the consultation responses have been analysed the team will produce a final report, which sets out the Commission’s reform proposals. If necessary, the team – working with the Commission’s in-house Parliamentary counsel – will also produce a draft Bill. It’s then up to the Government to decide whether or not to implement the Commission’s proposals.
Working as a research assistant is fascinating. After four years of studying law and hearing (and writing) seemingly endless criticisms of it, I’m able to make a (very small) contribution to its reform. Being at the heart of the law reform process is exciting for anyone who has read about the law or who has an interest in politics. There are meetings with government officials, senior judges and eminent lawyers, as well as an opportunity to write material which ends up in Commission publications. The criminal law team has recently been looking at the offence of “scandalising the court”, which criminalises attacks on judges and the judiciary. The issue has been covered in the media and in Parliament, and the Commission released a consultation paper on the offence in August.
Research assistants are given a number of tasks, depending on the needs of the team. A typical day might involve writing research minutes on a particular area of law or procedure, dealing with correspondence coming into the team, or proof-reading documents prior to publication. I’ve been lucky enough to have an opportunity to draft a piece of work which is going to be published alongside the Commission’s consultation paper on contempt of court. Freedom of Information requests are also the responsibility of research assistants.
So, what sort of skills might a research assistant need? Clearly, a good knowledge of the area of law in question is essential. In addition, researchers must have a keen eye for detail – a missed case or statutory provision at the start of a project may cause the whole argument to unravel further down the line. The ability to explain difficult concepts clearly – both face to face and on paper – is also crucial, as is a willingness to work closely with the other members of the team. Researchers also have to be able to drop what they are doing and familiarise themselves with a new area of law at short notice.
Working as a research assistant is challenging and rewarding. It’s an opportunity to work with some extremely intelligent lawyers and to see the inner workings of the law-reform process, as well as great preparation for a career in law. I would encourage anyone who has a good law degree and an interest in law reform to apply.