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Legal Writing

Writing skills

A major part of university studies involves writing assignments. Universities have a low tolerance for spelling errors, poorly constructed sentences and incorrect use of punctuation. This series of short videos focuses on several different types of punctuation and how to avoid using the wrong word in your writing. It is essential that you become familiar with the conventions of formal writing. Some of these are covered in the videos, but we recommend Chapter 3 of Richard Scragg's Legal Writing: A Complete Guide to a Career in Law which covers grammar. Chapter 4 covers legal writing, and will also be very helpful to you in preparing for assignments.

Introduction to Legal Writing
 Duration 8m 11s

  • Introduction to the legal and academic writing.
  • Covers essay structure and writing tips.

Punctuation and Grammar
 Duration 11m 02s

  • Punctuation is very important: it provides the signals to the reader that help them interpret the writer's words to obtain the correct meaning. Generally, punctuation conveys emphasis (as with an exclamation mark!), or separates the clauses in sentences.
  • Apostrophes indicate possession (e.g. Jane's bag), or indicate that letters are missing (e.g. don't). Words with missing letters are usually contractions and do not belong in formal writing. Do you know the difference between its and it's?
  • Commas separate items in lists, and also provide for pauses that separate your sentence clauses out. Commas can stand in for "and" (as they do in lists of items).
  • Colons are used between independent clauses when the second sentence explains, illustrates, paraphrases, or expands on the first sentence. Colons are often used to introduce lists or quotations. The most important thing to remember about colons is that you only use them after statements that are complete sentences. Never use a colon after a sentence fragment.
  • Semicolons separate major sentence elements. Semicolons are most often used to join together two clauses that could each be separate sentences ó creating a longer sentence.
  • Some words are very similar but mean different things, e.g. to / too / two. Variations like this can be confusing for some people, but once again thereís a simple solution - you need to be clear about meaning.

Quotation and Paraphrasing
 Duration 11m 10s

  • Covers when to quote and how to format short quotations and long quotations.
  • Covers how to paraphrase when researching.

Books on writing and academic writing

Eats, shoots & leaves : the zero tolerance approach to punctuation

Writing that works: a guide for tertiary students

Effective legal writing : for law students and lawyers

The New Zealand legal system: structures and processes

  • Check the Contents page, under Appendices

Your joking: an easy guide to correct punctuation, including how to know the difference between your and you're

Introduction to the New Zealand legal system
  • See paragraphs 19.11 - 19.13

Surviving law school

  • Ch 11: assignments

Legal skills

  • Ch 10: legal writing

Nemes and Coss' effective legal research

  • Ch 2: citations and effective legal writing; includes a section on avoiding plagiarism at [2.65]

Legal research and writing in New Zealand

  • Includes chapters on academic writing, legal memoranda, legal opinions, English and grammar
Learning the law
  • Ch 9: answering essay questions; Ch 10: exam tips

Academic study requires you to consult a number of sources when researching your assignment, some of which you will quote or reference in your assignment. However, if you copy passages of text into your assignment without providing an accurate reference to the source of that copied text you will have committed plagiarism. This module looks at types of plagiarism; at the University of Waikato's Assessment Regulations 2016; at how the University identifies plagiarism; at the benefits of accurate referencing; and at how you can retain your academic integrity.

Plagiarism is cheating

Presenting someone else's ideas as if they are your own is cheating. This type of cheating is called plagiarism. There are three types of plagiarism which we look at in this module: intentional plagiarism (where you deliberately provide a false reference or omit to provide a reference); unintentional plagiarism (where you unintentionally fail to provide a reference or provide an inaccurate reference); and self-plagiarism (which is where you use work that you have previously submitted for one assignment in a subsequent assignment. If you want to do this, you must first gain permission from your lecturer and reference the earlier assignment from which the material was taken).

You need to be aware that there is zero tolerance for plagiarism at the University, whether it is intentional or unintentional, as stipulated in the Assessment Regulations 2016..

The University, like many others around the world, uses a software program to detect the percentage of copied material in a single assignment. Serious cases are referred on to the Disciplinary Committee which then decides whether any further action is to be taken. The University uses the Turnitin programme. An example of a Turnitin report can be seen in the Academic Integrity 1 video, below.

Most people know that they will commit plagiarism if they copy passages of text into their writing without providing an indication of where the copied text is from.

Plagiarism happens because

Writers commit plagiarism for various reasons. For students, some of the reasons may include

  • not being aware of academic requirements
  • cultural reasons1
  • stress / lack of time
  • fear of failure
  • inability to express ideas in own words
  • poor research skills
  • ease of copying from internet sources
  • use of "paper mills"2.


Academic integrity, Part 1
Duration 3.32

  • types of plagiarism
  • the Turnitin program

Academic integrity, Part 2
Duration 4.07

  • common knowledge
  • importance of referencing
  • the internet
  • the "quote/note" rule

Summarising and paraphrasing

Taking notes involves either summarising or paraphrasing the authorís ideas.

  • Summarising
If you read a section of text, and reduce it down to key concepts in your own words, you are summarising.
  • Paraphrasing is vulnerable to plagiarism
When you paraphrase, you are rewriting the authorís ideas, but not necessarily in your own words. This may involve shuffling a few words around and/or replacing some with words of a similar meaning. Paraphrasing isnít illegal; it's OK to paraphrase - as long as it stays in your notes. By definition, paraphrased content canít be treated as quoted text because it isnít an exact copy of the original text. But paraphrasing is extremely vulnerable to plagiarism. When you revisit the notes you made the other week, you may not remember that the information you are about to copy into your assignment is paraphrased content. Even though it isnít word-for-word copied, the Turnitin program will consider that it is too similar to the original.
  • Avoid problems with paraphrasing
Set up some rules around paraphrasing and stick to them.
  • Use tools to distinguish between paraphrased and summarised content in your notes, e.g., highlighter, underlining, coloured pen.
  • Regardless of which note-taking option you use, the very first note you need to make is the source reference (author, publisher etc. / website).
  • If your notes spill over to extra pages, add the source information to those pages as well. Then, when you transfer your notes into your assignment, make sure that you move the referencing details into your assignment too.

Our top tips for avoiding plagiarism

  • Become familiar with the Universityís Assessment Regulations 2016.
  • Don't leave everything until the last moment.
  • Read and summarise, rather than copy or paraphrase.
  • When you're transferring material from your notes to your assignment, make sure relevant source reference information is transferred at the same time.
  • Direct quotes are acceptable as long as they are cited correctly. The New Zealand Law Style Guide includes details for citing quotations.
  • Apply the "You Quote It, You Note It" Rule: provide citations for all content in your writing, except for your own original thoughts and ideas!
  • If you aren't sure whether you should be referencing a source, check with someone else.

Useful sources