Teaching legal writing in a South African context : an evaluation of the work of student tutors in assisting with the development of legal writing skills in first year law students at one South African law school.
In this study, an analysis and an evaluation of the feedback comments made by fourth year law students on legal writing assignments of first year law students is made. The purpose is to formulate a sense of the student tutors' shared capacity to critique legal writing, and thereby assist in developing the writing skills of first year students at one South African law school. A review of the literature on legal writing from the United States of America suggests that there has been a shift away from the current-traditional paradigm, which focussed on formal features of legal writing. The 'new legal rhetoric' approach, based on research and theoretical understandings which view writing as a recursive process , has now been widely adopted. This approach has been further extended by the 'social perspective,' which acknowledges writing as a social practice. which novice writers can learn from experts within the legal discourse community. Finally, critical reading and writing theorists propose a politicised approach to writing, encouraging critiques of alienating discourse practices. Legal writing pedagogy in the United States has reflected these changing theoretical perspectives. The 'process' approach to teaching writing requires intensive writing instruction and practice by novices. Several drafts of assignments are submitted, and instructors respond with appropriate written (and verbal) feedback comments, which are intended to motivate revisions. The implications of this approach are that increased numbers of trained writing instructors are required to implement such a labour-intensive pedagogy. Resource constraints, and the difficulties of staffing such programmes, have resulted in innovative models being devised. The use of student tutors to assist in teaching legal writing inspired the introduction of a comparable tutor-training course at the University of Natal, Durban Law School, in 1999. In this study, eighteen pieces of writing: three different examples of first year law students' writing, on which six tutors had each written feedback comments, were analysed. The number, accuracy and type of comments were tabulated, and the tone and quality of the responses were evaluated against the theoretical frameworks reviewed above. A descriptive, qualitative interpretation of their commenting practice develops a detailed sense of their successes and deficiencies. The conclusions which emerged suggest that modifications to the tutors' education and training , and closer supervision/monitoring procedures would enhance the tutors' theoretical understandings, as well as their commenting practice. The value and viability of such a programme is confirmed by the empirical information, and indicates that student tutors can extend teaching resources, to provide the assistance necessary to implement intensive legal writing instruction. In a South African context, where academic literacy skills are so often deficient in first year students, a programme which builds capacity and extends limited teaching resources can be extremely beneficial.