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Lecturer's expectations

In this section, one of your lecturers - Moira Paterson - sets out what she expects from student assignments on this topic.

Essay topic:

It has been suggested by Helga Kuhse and Peter Singer in their article 'Active Voluntary Euthanasia, Morality and the Law' (1995) 3 Journal of Law and Medicine 129, that the primary focus in determining the legal possibility of medical end-of-life decisions should be the issue of patient consent rather than the subjective intention of the doctor or nurses. Comment critically with reference to the current legal position in Victoria and contrast this with the approach taken in some overseas jurisdiction.

The essay topic

  1. Students need to interpret the topic. In this topic, students would need to understand that phrases like "critically comment with reference to the current legal position in Victoria" requires them to identify the existing legal position in Victoria (i.e. the relevant acts and cases that apply here at the present time) and then to evaluate its strengths and weaknesses from a policy perspective.
  2. This would require an analysis of the way in which the laws operate and the arguments that have been raised for and against reform. It would also require the students to make clear their own views while acknowledging and dealing with any countervailing arguments. The ethical/legal distinction should not pose any major problems for students.
  3. The phrase "and contrast this with approaches taken in some overseas jurisdiction" requires students to research the position in another country which takes a different approach to euthanasia (probably somewhere like the Netherlands), and to describe the key differences and to consider which of the two approaches is preferable.
  4. This particular essay required analysis of a comment from a particular article, and to understand the significance of that comment you had to understand the law behind it. The reference to the subjective intention of the doctors was a reference to the fact that, in the law cases, the courts attached primary significance to whether or not the intention of the doctor was to terminate the life of the patient. As a consequence you have things like the 'double-effect doctrine', where the doctor might have knowlingly given too much morphine and killed the patient, while the primary intention was to alleviate the pain.
  5. This topic also required a critique of the law. To effectively critique the law one needs to know what the law is, how the subjective intention is relevant, and to make that relevance clear with reference to the cases or the statutes that establish that. Then the student needed to go on and look at the policy analysis.
  6. I try to explain to students that what I am looking for initially is a sense that they understand the law, and then use that a platform for the policy analysis, the evaluation, or whatever is required. But in an essay like this one, there is a little bit of a trap, in that they can think it simply requires an analysis of whether euthanasia is a good idea or not.

Researching and preparing for the assignment

  • Students should research and prepare for the assignment by putting into practice the skills that are explicitly taught in the Legal Research Methods unit, which is run by qualified law librarians. It is advisable that students start with some secondary texts which provide a general overview and then search for the relevant cases and statutes using conventional research tools.
  • Students are expected to search the library catalogue for materials on euthanasia and also search the indexes of law journals (especially the AGIS database). In the case of an overseas jurisdiction, it is sufficient for students to refer to some secondary sources rather than the primary materials.

Allocating time

  • The amount of time spent on researching and preparing for this essay varies according to the amount of time and effort expended on the legal research and writing units. Students should be able to complete the work required in about 10-12 hours (i.e. if they start work when the assignment is handed out they would need to spend about 1.5-2 hours per week working on it).

Qualities of a good essay

  1. A good essay on this topic would deal with the issues raised in the quotation. In other words, it would explain that the current legal situation focuses on subjective intention (persons who administer lethal doses of medication are guilty of murder if their intention is to kill but not if their intention is to relieve pain). It would also explain that what is advocated is a change to a position where euthanasia is permissible with the consent of the patients and where the law instead focuses on whether or not a patient gave informed consent to being killed.
  2. A good essay would need to contain:
    1. An accurate and up-to-date overview of the relevant legal position in Victoria, together with
    2. a reasoned evaluation of the strengths and weaknesses of that position from a policy perspective. It would also provide a comparison with some overseas jurisdiction that takes a different approach and provide an overview of that regime, draw out the key differences and similarities, and express some view as to the significance of the differences. There would need to be references to primary legal materials and identification of the key arguments that have been raised for and against the legalisation of voluntary euthanasia.
  3. A High Distinction essay would normally demonstrate a greater breadth of research and a greater depth of analysis than a Distinction essay. It would also be very well structured and well expressed, as it is difficult to provide good legal analysis in an unstructured manner or in poor English.

Criteria for assessing essays

1. Research

Each topic requires students to research the relevant law. This may include case law, legislation, or a combination of both. In addition to primary sources of law, students should also consider interpretations and commentaries on the law in journals, textbooks, etc. Further, some assignment topics may be suited to conducting more "personal" forms of research such as discussions with people in relevant areas of the profession.

In order to demonstrate the extent of research undertaken, students should include a detailed bibliography at the end of their assignment.

Students should note that although some materials relevant to the assignment may be included in the Legal Process course materials, it will be necessary to undertake significant research outside these materials.

2. Analysis and evaluation

Each topic requires more than a mere description of the existing law. Students are required to analyse critically the legal positions and give personal opinions/evaluations on the strengths and weaknesses of the legal position in question. Such opinions/evaluations should be supported by convincing argumentation and objective authority from research undertaken by the student.

3. Originality

It is not sufficient merely to repeat the opinions of other writers in a particular topic area. Students should devote enough research and thought to their topic to form their own opinion on the issue(s) in question. But such opinions should be based on research and reasoning. Where opinions of other writers are relied upon to support a student's argument, they should be acknowledged by way of footnotes.

4. Legal writing

Good legal writing is clear and concise. All propositions should be supported either by authority or, in the case of a student's opinion, by well-argued reasons for holding that opinion. Assignments should have a logical and coherent structure so that it is easy for the examiner to follow the student's line of reasoning from one point to the next. Headings and sub-headings may be used for clarity of structure.

Citations should comply with the accepted conventions set out in Campbell, Fox and Kewley, Students' Guide to Legal Writing, Federation Press, Sydney 1998, or in the Australian guide to legal citation.

The general standard of English expression, including grammar, spelling and punctuation, will be taken into account in assessing assignments.

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