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When you fall out of love with IRAC

Learning how to summarise a case is a rite of passage for any law student. But what do you if you don't find the IRAC or ILAC methods that helpful? Both the ILAC and IRAC methods are mnemonics that indicate you should:

  • Identify the legal issues.

  • State the relevant rules.

  • Apply the laws to the facts to the case.

  • Conclude the outcome after applying the law to the facts.

Surprisingly there isn't a fifth step that invites your anxiety when you have other questions, like what about the ratio decidendi, or the obiter dicta? How much do I need to put in versus leave out of my case summary? In order to help you create case summaries that help you better understand and apply the law, we've created a FIRES mnemonic that isn't ultra vires or beyond your capabilities either. You can absolutely do this, and practice makes perfect. Let's begin!

Facts of the case

The purpose of this section is to provide a broad-sweep background to your analysis, so stick to relevant facts and, again, stay brief. The conciseness of your case notes will attract extra marks, as this demonstrates your ability to argue in a legal context. Don't forget to include any contradictory facts or evidence that arose in the judgment.

Issues at Law

State its name, which court decided and its legal significance – what did it change? Perhaps offer some context, such as prior law it affected. Outline whether you agree with the ruling or not – and list your reasons. Keep it brief. A good introduction is concise, compelling and provides a ‘bird’s eye view’ of your whole argument.

Ratio decidendi

Finding the ratio decidendi involves identifying the decisions reached by each judge, noting any dissents. Being able to do this is crucial if you disagree with the outcome of the case. Firstly, a very lawyerly disclaimer: this ability is perhaps one of the most difficult to master and is often one that newcomers to studying law find so frustrating and challenging. Finding the ratio – the critical point of law to be taken from a case is a crucial skill given that our standard law system allows both legislation and cases to determine the shape of current law. Judgments, however, can range from one page to an epic hundred or so. Even judges that agree on orders to be made or even on specific points of law may differ on others. While this may have the immediate effect of raising the blood pressure of law students and legal practitioners, it might also serve to ensure diversity of legal views at the judicial level. That is, if this point of law comes up again in a different case, the arguments of a dissenting judgment might be seized upon by the majority and made law.

Enough of philosophy. Now the frustration. Unfortunately, there is no clear-cut method to distilling the ratio from judgments – it is simply an ability best honed by practice. We do have a few suggestions: Read the case and read a summary. A lecturer typically previews or writes a case summary for your lecture notes. It's advisable to take advantage of this to help you refine your skills as you read through the case and look for why this point of law was more important than others.

Clarify. Ask study group friends, students in your class or more approachable tutorial leaders about what they saw as the ratio from cases you are studying.

Examine the decisions

Suppose there were several different judgments, as if often the case, it might be convenient to combine identifying each decision with your analysis of the sentence as you go. Remember to analyse, don’t describe. Consider the decision in light of existing law (often referred to within the judgment itself) – does it contradict prior decisions? Does it seem logical to you? Does it seem consistent? If the decision departed from previous cases, was this appropriate? Often judgments will depart from precedent specifically to keep up with the changing values of an evolving society – for ‘policy’ reasons. Or does the decision reflect any prejudice and bias indicative of the political climate at the time? Show you are aware of this.

Summarise the judgements

Having evaluated and analysed the case, would you agree with the majority or dissent? Would you agree/disagree – but for different reasons than those of the judges? Explain why. Refer to past cases, refer to international law, refer to second reading speeches (which are an excellent way to grasp the intentions behind the creation of legislation) – to explain why you believe your approach might be more appropriate or achieve greater justice. Be original. Be outrageous. Demonstrate that your ability for deep thinking and analysis.

It looks like you're finished, if you're not quite ready to get "hurt again" by re-reading this article. Here's a flowchart that we created that'll help you understand the steps you need to take for your next case summary, and the one after that and the one after that too.

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