General Topic Information
Questions of law provide challenging problems as the role of the legal system is viewed differently in different cultures and this topic also has very complex vocabulary. An important distinction between Western countries and developing countries is that in the power structure of Western countries, the law is above the government. For example, the highest court in the land in most countries has the power to over-rule any law that is made if it violates the constitution (this occasionally occurs). In addition, any person can challenge any law and there is no requirement that the person who challenges a law is a citizen. In addition, the constitution can only be changed if approved directly by the people through a referendum.
The courts in most countries are broken into two separate areas, criminal and civil cases. In criminal cases (involving crimes) the case against the accused must be proved beyond “reasonable doubt” and there is a long appeals process. The key concept behind this is the principle that it is better to allow guilty people to go free than convict the innocent – this is different for many developing countries. Possible verdicts in criminal cases are “guilty” and “not-guilty” – “innocent” is not a verdict. The role of a court is to decide whether there is enough evidence to convict the accused, a jury may believe that a person probably committed a crime but that there is not enough evidence to be sure, and the verdict in such cases will be “not-guilty”. As a consequence of this philosophy, the percentage of not-guilty verdicts is much higher in Western countries compared to developing countries. When people are sent to jail, education and rehabilitation are important considerations because convicted criminals will usually later be freed back into the community.
Civil cases are related to money matters such as compensation and contract disputes and are decided on “the balance of probabilities” which means that all legal decisions in these cases are based on what the judge or jury to believe to be the fairest or most likely outcome. Any attempt at interference in the law is a very serious criminal offence, particularly if by a person holding high office. For example, if a judge commits a minor traffic offence or other minor matter and signs an untrue statement he or she can expect to spend time in jail. Generally, in Western civil courts it is difficult to achieve justice for individuals because taking legal action is too expensive to be a reasonable option for most people. In addition, the court process is long and slow and causes a great deal of stress. The high cost of lawyers may also prevent people accused of crimes from getting proper legal representation. However, free legal representation (legal aid) is provided in some cases.
Most IELTS Task 2 questions will focus on topic such as capital punishment, sentencing and crimes committed by young people. Capital punishment (with the exception of the United States) is no longer permitted in most Western countries. The key reasons for abolishing capital punishment are that the system is flawed and many people in the past have been proved to be innocent after being executed. It is also clearly not possible to correct an incorrect verdict after a person has been executed. Many societies regard capital punishment as inhumane because of cruelty and because no person should be asked to kill another in a just society. Capital punishment is a punishment not just also for the person who committed the crime but also for their families. In addition, if governments have the right to kill citizens, such laws could be used for political purposes.
The case for capital punishment centres on the idea that some crimes are so serious, that an individual may forfeit the right to live. Arguments that are listed on both sides are the cost of keeping prisoners in jail is very high and governments should not be forced to pay this money (the cost of executions is also very high because of protections and appeals for capital cases because they invariably face many legal challenges). In addition, capital punishment does/does not act as a deterrent for others committing serious crimes. The idea that capital punishment does not act as a deterrent is that people who commit capital crimes are usually uneducated and do not consider possible consequences including that they may be caught.
Another common question is whether there should be fixed punishments for each type of crime. The correct term for this is mandatory sentencing. The advantages of this approach are that it saves time and money and is suitable for minor offences such as speeding, running a red light and failing to vote in an election that attract standard fines (though these can be challenged in a court). For more significant crimes mandatory sentencing has the advantage that people are aware of the potential consequences of committing a crime and that everyone will receive the same punishment for the same crime. However, mandatory sentencing does not allow for the circumstances of a crime to be considered, does not consider the age of the person and the possibility of rehabilitation and can lead to injustice.
Crimes committed by young people are also a common question. Most crimes committed by young people are committed because of lack of opportunity and education. Often they are the result of drug addiction and poor education. Supporting young people in these situations is important otherwise they will become lifelong criminals. For young people it is much more important to rehabilitate them rather than punish them. Sending young people to jail gives them negative role models and relationships and they usually become more likely rather than less likely to commit crimes once they have completed their sentence. It is important to remember that criminals will later be released from jail and that it is important that society creates an environment where people who are released from jail are less likely to reoffend by supporting their transition back into the community.
Veto – A veto is to override a decision.
Sentencing – Sentencing is the process of deciding the penalty for committing a crime.
Criminal offence/civil offence – An offence is a violation of the law.
Referendum – A referendum is an election that allows changes to be made to a country’s constitution.
Reasonable doubt – A part of the law that states a person should be found not guilty of a crime if there is any reasonable possibility that they did not commit the crime.
Appeal – A formal legal process to challenge the findings of a court.
The accused – The accused is person who is charged with committing a crime.
Legal aid – Government money provided to people who are accused of a crime but do not have sufficient money to pay for a lawyer.
Pro bono – Pro bono (from Latin) is when a lawyer chooses to give free legal representation. This sometime occurs when people are unable to represent themselves adequately or if there is significant public interest in a case.
Capital punishment – Capital punishment is the death penalty.
Deterrent – Deterrent is the opposite of encouragement and means to discourage an activity by creating negative consequences for engaging in an activity.
Rehabilitation – The process of returning a person to a normal situation. Rehabilitation can occur after committing crimes or be medical such as after a serious accident.
Compensation – To compensate is to make up for a wrongdoing, sometimes with money.
Sample Essay – Mandatory Sentencing
Some people believe that there should be fixed punishments for each type of crime. Some people suggest that the circumstances of a crime, and the reasons for committing it should be taken into consideration when deciding on the punishment. Discuss both views and give your opinion.
Sentencing for those found guilty of crimes presents a difficult challenge because justice must be seen to done for both victims and perpetrators. Mandatory sentencing ensures that the same sentence is handed out for the same crime; however, judges lose the ability to adjust sentences and cannot take into account factors such as age and the possibility of rehabilitation. In this essay, the consequences of mandatory sentencing will be discussed.
Mandatory sentencing has the advantage that everyone is aware of exactly the sentence they can expect if found guilty of a particular crime. However, since people who commit crimes are often poorly educated and may not consider the consequences of their actions when they commit a crime, this approach may offer little benefit.
Removing the ability of judges to adjust sentences on the basis of the circumstances of a crime may also lead to injustice as it assumes that any two people who commit the same crime have the same level of moral culpability. For example, someone who murders in order to prevent suffering is morally different to someone who murders a stranger at random. Applying the same sentences in such disparate cases clearly would not serve the interests of either justice or the wider community.
In addition, it may be appropriate to give a young person who has committed a crime a lighter sentence in order to give them the opportunity to change their behaviour and become a productive and law-abiding citizen. In contrast, a person who is older and has committed many crimes should receive a heavier penalty as they are more likely to reoffend in future and heavier sentences are needed to protect the community.
In summary, mandatory sentencing may lead to injustice because the same crime may be committed for very different reasons. In addition, a person’s history and the opportunity for rehabilitation should also be taken into consideration when deciding sentences for those convicted of committing crimes.
This question is difficult to answer as cultural views about appropriate sentencing for crimes differ widely. Many students will focus on the punishment aspect of sentencing and will not consider that people who are sent to prison typically re-enter society at a later point and therefore there is a need to rehabilitate people. This is a major factor in sentencing. A further difficulty is that there is a great deal of technical vocabulary needed for this topic that students may lack. In such cases it is usual for students to use alternate language to describe technical language.
The question itself asks about whether punishments should be fixed. It should be noted that the correct word to describe this is “mandatory sentencing”. In addition, the question refers to punishment – but this is often not the primary purpose of sending people to prison. For this reason, the correct and more formal word is “sentencing” (applies to courts only).
The introduction contains three sentences. The first sentence tells the reader the topic and the reason why mandatory sentencing is important. The second sentence contains the main ideas, which are presented in the order that they appear in the body and define the high level structure of the essay. There are three main ideas – mandatory sentencing gives the same punishment for all offenders, it prevents judges from using discretion and does not take into account the need to rehabilitate offenders. These three ideas are the subject of the three body paragraphs of the essay. The third sentence of the essay is a thesis statement and tells the reader that the aim of the essay is to explain the consequences of introducing mandatory sentencing.
The first body paragraph is simple and contains just two sentences. The main idea is that mandatory sentencing leads to people knowing what the consequence of being found guilty of a crime is. This appears to be a solid argument for the introducing mandatory sentencing. However, the author clearly does not believe that mandatory sentencing is a good for society and negates this argument in the second sentence of the paragraph by stating that people who commit crimes rarely consider consequences. An important strategy is used here. Even if only one side of the argument is being considered, acknowledging the opposite position and highlighting its weaknesses can strengthen the argument. This shows the reader that the author has considered both sides objectively. It also means that irrespective of whether the question asks for one or both sides of an argument, it is important to point out important arguments from both sides to prevent the reader from wondering whether the author considered them or not.
The second body paragraph covers the idea that removing the ability of judges to adjust sentences can cause injustice and this is supported by the example of murders committed for different reasons. It is worth noting that the examples chosen are not uncommon and most educated readers would be familiar with cases of this kind – thus the writer is drawing from the reader’s personal experiences.
The third paragraph is culturally the most challenging and explains that sentencing is not necessarily focused on punishment. The needs of both the victims of crime and the perpetrators of crime should be considered as well as the needs of society. The idea is also supported with an example of how the needs of society should be balanced.
The conclusion consists of a conclusion marker and restates the three key ideas presented in the essay. It is worth noting that these ideas are presented in the introduction, in the body (where they are developed) and again in the conclusion. Each time they are presented in the same order, which serves to give the essay a strong structure.
Mandatory sentencing – The question refers to fixed punishments. The best general word to describe this is mandatory sentencing.
Sentencing – A sentence is the penalty handed out by a court for being found guilty of a crime and should be used instead of punishment. The intention of courts is not necessarily to punish offenders but balances the various needs of the people involved and the wider community.
Victims of crime – People who suffer pain or loss due to crimes are described as victims of crime.
Perpetrators, offenders – Both of these words are very formal words for describing people who commit crimes.
Rehabilitation – Rehabilitation is the process by which people return to a normal life. It can be used for people who are recovering from serious injury or those who turn away from crime.
Presumption of innocence – This is a concept in Western legal systems that a person is considered to be not guilty of a charge until a verdict has been made by a court of law.
Beyond reasonable doubt – In criminal cases a person can only be convicted of a crime if the jury is sure” beyond reasonable doubt” that they are guilty. The test is much higher than in civil cases where the test is the “balance of probability”.
Guilty/not guilty/not proved – Juries must be sure that a person is guilty of a crime “beyond reasonable doubt”. This means if they think a person probably committed a crime but aren’t very sure they are found “not guilty” or the charge is found “not proven”. This is different from being found to be “innocent” as a not guilty verdict does not mean that a person is innocent, only that there was not enough evidence to prove their guilty. When a person is found guilty of a crime – the correct verb is to be “convicted”.