The Law Commission is a body that constantly reviews the law to ensure that it is fair, modern, simple and effective.
It regularly hires young graduates as research assistants – but what exactly do they do? Current research assistant Sarah Taylor explains all…
The life of a Law Commission research assistant
My time at the Law Commission began straight from finishing my BPTC in September 2014. Prior to this, I studied law at the University of Reading and completed an LLM in Human Rights Law at the University of Nottingham. The work of the Law Commission was often a cornerstone of my undergraduate studies and I wanted to be involved in the development of high quality law reform. Further, the aim of the Commission – to ensure that the law is fair, modern, simple and effective – is something I firmly believe is vital for a properly operating legal system. This is what motivated me to apply to the Commission’s research assistant (RA) scheme.
Within the Commission I am part of the criminal law team and I have worked on two main projects since arriving. The first was kidnapping and child abduction, for which we published a final report in November 2014.
My primary involvement in this project was the completion of the impact assessment. Every report published by the Commission must be accompanied by an impact assessment, which seeks to calculate the practical effects of a proposed reform. It is a notoriously tricky piece of work that most RAs have to tackle at some point in their Commission career.
As this project concerned the substantive criminal law I began by analysing rates and cost of prosecutions, convictions and appeals involving the offence of kidnapping and other related offences. From these I estimated the effect our proposals would have and what the resultant monetary costs or benefits would be.
The most challenging aspect of the impact assessment, however, is the calculation of the non-monetisable effects of reform proposals, such as the effect on fairness. In the current economic climate monetisable costs and benefits may be at the forefront of the minds of law makers but it is often the non-monetisable effects that are most important. It takes skill to emphasise these aspects effectively. Thankfully my impact assessment was well received by senior policy officials in the Ministry of Justice and was referred to by Simon Hughes MP, then Minister of State for Justice, during a debate in the House of Commons.
At the conclusion of this project I was invited to write related articles for the journals Criminal Law and Justice Weekly and The New Law Journal. I had not anticipated such an opportunity when beginning my work at the Commission, and it was a great privilege to present our work in this way.
My second project, misconduct in public office, is very different. Unlike kidnapping, which was approaching its end when I became involved, misconduct in public office (“MIPO”) was just beginning.
In the early stages of a project the Commission focuses on gathering the views of those with a specific interest in the area of law being reviewed (“stakeholders”) and preparing for public consultation on its initial proposals. The MIPO project has provided me with the invaluable opportunity to develop our engagement with stakeholders, and I am regularly in contact with senior members of the judiciary, policy officials, expert lawyers and pressure groups.
This exposure provides a priceless “behind the scenes tour” of how law is developed and how it operates in practice. Most notably, I recently arranged a symposium at King’s College London to launch the publication of our first paper on MIPO with speakers including Dominic Grieve QC MP (former Attorney General) and Sarah Green, Deputy Chair of the Independent Police Complaints Commission. The event was a great success. Hearing the debate on numerous divergent views, from a variety of perspectives, will assist us greatly in developing our law reform options.
As well as law reform work, I have also had the opportunity to engage in Commission-wide projects. As this is the 50th anniversary year of the Law Commission there have been many chances to celebrate the incredible achievements of the Commission. In particular, I assisted with the 50th Anniversary event held in the House of Commons in summer 2015 and worked on a communications project aimed at developing new ways to convey our successes.
The Commission has been wonderfully supportive of my interests and motivations inside and outside of work. In October 2015 I travelled to Nepal to complete a charity trek in the Himalayas. I was able to complete lots of fundraising ventures in the Commission for this – the civil service really loves cake! I have also coordinated and taken part in various charitable events for the Commission, in support of the London Legal Support Trust, including the Great Legal Quiz, walking a marathon and of course the London Legal Walk.
I am due to commence pupillage with Goldsmith Chambers in October 2016. My time as an RA at the Law Commission has enabled me to enter practice with confidence and a clear understanding of the relationship between law in theory and law in practice. The Law Commission is beyond compare in the skills it provides for people interested in a legal career, whether it be in policy development in the civil service, practising as a solicitor or barrister or pursuing further academic work.
After the Law Commission: where next?
Barrister Justin Leslie was a research assistant in the Commission’s public law team between 2010 and 2012. He now works as a parliamentary counsel, drafting primary legislation for the government. Prior to this he was a barrister at 42 Bedford Row (where he also completed pupillage).
Working at the Law Commission was a formative experience for me and a great starting point in my legal career.
Here are five reasons why (in my view) every law graduate should at least consider applying to become an RA:
- Quality of work: As an RA, you will work on a law reform project that has been chosen because the area of law needs to be improved. The nature of this work is important and challenging. In many cases, projects will become legislation and it’s a unique role for a law graduates to be able to shape the law in this way. In private practice, I would often encounter overly-complex areas of the law (usually property law) and think to myself, “if only the Law Commission would do a project on this!”
- Stand-out experience: Working as an RA was a big help when it came to applying for pupillage. It shows strength in several core legal skills and gives numerous solid examples to talk about. Speaking to my chambers after being offered pupillage, I know that being an RA definitely helped me get interviews and was CV-gold in terms of allowing me to stand-out from the crowd.
- Development of skills: I left the Law Commission much better at legal analysis, research and writing. I remember a game where our team leader would race RAs to find a case or an obscure statute, and we became really fast! The Law Commission also forced me to think practically about how ideas and argument would work in the everyday world. Now when I’m drafting a new law I always ask myself “how would this work in practice?” and I picked this up from my time as an RA.
- Understanding government: My time as an RA was also a crash-course in how legislation is made and structured, which was helpful in private practice because I could understand the ‘shape’ of a new area of law more easily. I was also able to decide that working in government was something that I would enjoy. Some people prefer the prospect of fame and fortune in the world of private practice but, having seen both sides, my view is that working in government is much better if you want to be involved in changing the law, rather than just applying it.
- Building contacts: A big part of being an RA is being social and I still regularly meet up with former RAs for drinks. But I also came into contact with top academics and senior judges, and this has helped me develop my career in various ways, such as being called on to write articles or to contribute chapters to text books.
Case study: looking at the offence of misconduct in public office
The offence of misconduct in public office has been the subject of many calls for reform. Reform has been unsuccessfully attempted on a number of occasions since at least the 1960s. The Law Commission, and its particular skills in researching and reforming difficult areas of law, was seen as the perfect body to finally find a solution.
One of my pieces of work on this project was to research all of these previous attempts at reforming the offence. This would provide us with the opportunity to learn from some of the ideas already put forward and to understand how the context of the offence, and the most appropriate reform direction, may have changed and developed over the years.
As misconduct in public office is a very broad offence it has been relevant to a variety of law reform agendas over the years, both within the criminal law and in other areas. This required a broad research plan to ensure that nothing was missed. This was especially so as there are a number of relevant issues that have developed significantly over time in different but relevant areas of law. The concept of a public/private divide, for example, was removed from the law on bribery by the Bribery Act 2010, following a Law Commission recommendation.
A key document for this research was a House of Commons briefing note that referred to a 1997 proposal by the Committee on Standards in Public Life (CPSL) for a statutory offence of misconduct in public office to be created. This is important for our purposes as one of the questions for reform is whether the offence should be placed on a statutory footing. Accordingly, I endeavoured to find out more about this proposal and any responses that were submitted in response to the CPSL’s consultation.
Unfortunately, this proved rather more difficult than I had anticipated. I contacted the CSPL directly – they had no records. Nor did archivists at the Home Office, the Ministry of Justice or the Houses of Parliament.
Eventually, I discovered an archive of CSPL materials that is kept by Sloman Library at the University of Essex. It was time for a field trip away from the Ministry of Justice. It was fascinating to wade through this large archive, and I found a number of very interesting documents along the way, including transcripts of speeches given by Lord Nolan, the first Chair of the CSPL, in 1997.
Much of what we found helpfully supplemented other archive research I had conducted and therefore provided us with a comprehensive understanding of the reform history of the offence. I even had chance to visit my gran for fish and chips on my way back to London. Now there’s a work-life balance for you!
On my return to the office, I added the information I had found in the archive to my research note on other reform proposals over the years. Following one of my regular discussions with Professor Ormerod QC (Commissioner for Criminal Law) and the barrister leading this project, it was decided that my work would be published as part of the project. It now forms Appendix E to Misconduct in Public Office: Issues Paper 1 – The Current Law, published on 20 January 2016.
How to get hired
The Commission typically recruits researchers on year-long contracts, with a deadline at the start of February – so there’s still time to apply for 2016! Visit the Law Commission’s website for more details.