How to approach and tackle a problem question

Problem questions typically set out a hypothetical scenario, the facts of which touch upon topics, issues and perhaps even specific cases relevant to a particular area. In answering problem questions, therefore, you would be expected to identify any relevant features or aspects of the question, pick out and consider the specific questions or problems that they present, and discuss and apply the relevant law to the facts of the scenario, perhaps even reaching a conclusion as to how it might be resolved. We will now talk you through the process of tackling and answering a public law problem question.

Reading a problem question

It perhaps states the obvious to point out that the first thing you must do is read the given problem scenario. But it is in this crucial stage that you get a feel for the question, identify its key points, and form ideas about the legal issues that arise. Problem questions are so called because they typically involve a legal problem, that is, a factual scenario which requires the given law to be applied in pursuit of its resolution. It is unlikely, therefore, that any problem scenario you are given will be a settled or non-contentious issue. There will always be something to discuss.

At this point, you should make yourself aware of the legal issues, principles and debates that are relevant to the given area (if one has been stated or is obvious – some problem questions replicate real life by being a little ‘messy’ and not confined to one topic or subject) and that you think are presented by the question. Sometimes the facts of a given scenario mirror, or are similar, to those of a real case so it is useful to try to pick out this kind of connection early on.

Where to start

As a general rule, most (though not absolutely all) of the facts in a given problem scenario will be important. The first sentence or two might be significant merely for the way in which they ‘set the scene’ and define the parameters of the discussion, but chances are all the other issues are there presented for a reason – this being that they need addressing and discussing. Do not, therefore, skip over or avoid certain aspects of the facts.

Structuring your answer

In terms of the way in which you structure your answer to the problem question, it depends in part on the way in which the question or scenario itself is structured. If the question merely sets out a series of events, then these should be taken in turn – in a chronological order, if that is relevant. Alternatively, if the question consists of a number of unconnected points, events, or characters, then these should be addressed in turn and typically in isolation.

Deciding the content of your answer

The important thing to remember when tackling a problem question is that you should not be afraid to state the obvious. If, for example, it is obvious from the scenario that the area being discussed is judicial review or police powers, then you should state this in the introduction, using this as a link to an introduction or definition of those particular areas. Easy marks can be lost by assuming that a feature of the question is ‘too obvious’ to point out.

As the last two sections have explained, you should bear in mind that most of the facts of a problem question will be important in some way and require discussion, and you should structure your answer in a sensible fashion depending on the structure or content of the scenario question. To this we can also add that you must ensure that your answer and its discussions are always relevant to the question. It is very easy, in exploring the various themes, topics and cases that are relevant to the given scenario, to digress into another discussion – perhaps a more academic or theoretical one – in the hope that this will gain you even more marks, but you should resist this temptation. Your answer to the problem scenario question should show not only an understanding of the area and an ability to apply the law to the facts, but also judgment as to what should go in – and what should not – to your answer. Keep things relevant.

Most importantly of all with regard to your answer, you must engage critically with the facts of the scenario and the area of law, including cases and other sources that you are discussing. This means that when considering the various facts of the scenario you should not simply identify the relevant law and give a supporting case, but consider the issues critically and use sources to make a critical argument. As this guide has already explained, problem questions typically involve a contentious issue so a critical argument is absolutely vital in exploring how the issues might be resolved. This will also often require you to consider competing arguments.

This emphasis on critical analysis and discussion means, at the same time, that you should place less emphasis on the descriptive features of your answer. Don’t, for instance, spend pages and pages telling the examiner the facts of the cases you are citing; one or two sentences will normally suffice. This will save time and give you more opportunity to get into the critical discussion that will ultimately attract marks.

Concluding

Finally, though there are a range of views on this, you do not always have to reach a definitive conclusion. The critical discussion, including the ability to use sources and the law in the context of the scenario, is where the core of this kind of assessment is rooted. Your conclusion, therefore, might be a definitive answer but could simply be a few sentences or a paragraph that show an awareness that there are a number of potential solutions.