Some Thoughts on Case Law Selection and Why it Is OK to Make Mistakes (as Long as You Learn from Them)

By Stijn Smet

In this post, I aim to make two fairly straightforward points. First: methodology is crucial in any type of (academic) research. This is obviously the case for legal research as well, even if legal scholars have traditionally been less concerned with methodological questions than scholars in most other disciplines (I am painting with a broad brush here). Legal scholars are particularly prone to remain obscure on their methodology in their writings. But something seems to be moving in legal academia. Many of today’s PhD researchers are keenly aware of the centrality of their methodology. They seem to pay exceedingly careful attention to the selection of and proper application of their methodology. Previous posts by PhD researchers Dorothea Staes and Laura Van den Eynde, as well as the very organisation of this blog post series, are a testament to this welcome evolution.

I have written this post with an audience of such dynamic PhD researchers in mind. This post is meant, first and foremost, for them. Which brings me to my second point: it is OK to make (some) mistakes as a PhD researcher, as long as you learn from them. Doing a PhD is, after all, part of one’s education. It is supposed to be a learning process, from which you emerge as a (much) better scholar than the one you were when you just started. It thus seems only natural, to me, that you are likely to make mistakes along the way. And that there should be room for such mistakes. As long as you learn from them.

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Selecting Analytical Frameworks Across Disciplinary Boundaries

Lourdes Peroni

In sharing my experience with methodological issues during my Ph.D., I would like to focus on the aspects I considered essential when selecting the frameworks that informed my case law analysis. In what follows, I outline the main criteria I used to select some of these frameworks and then zoom in on the process I followed in making further selections from within one of my frameworks: critical discourse analysis.

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Selecting Landmark Cases

By Laura Van den Eynde, Research Fellow (F.N.R.S.) at the Center for Public Law – Université libre de Bruxelles. Lauras Ph.D. research focuses on the relationships between human rights NGOs and jurisdictions and the influences these organizations have on judicial dialogue.

This post aims at discussing a question related to case selection when conducting research. The relevance or the need to limit the number of cases to examine is particularly acute regarding the European Court of Human Rights (whose case law contains many repetitive cases). One option is to analyse ‘landmark cases’, which requires a more precise definition or at least a coherent methodology for drawing up the list of cases. Although the term is frequently used, it is often difficult to rely on a specific criterion to determine what a ‘landmark’ case is[1] and more research seems to have been conducted regarding the United States or the Court of Justice of the European Union.

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Examining Strasbourg case law and judicial behavior: a view across disciplines

By Dorothea Staes, PhD researcher at ULB and USL on the European Court on Human Rights’ references to external normative instruments to interpret the ECHR.

Legal scholars repeatedly struggle with and are criticized for methodological aspects of research design, not least when undertaking case law studies. A holistic approach to judicial decision-making – introducing extrajudicial disciplines and explanatory factors – has the capacity to enrich research methodology and substantive insights in legal phenomena. Legal scholars should be aware of the value that other disciplines might add while not losing sight of possible limits of their own methodological capacities in this respect. Continue reading

Blog post series: legal research methodologies to deal with case law from Strasbourg (and beyond)

This post was written by Valeska David, Helena De Vylder and Eline Kindt, doctoral researchers at the Human Rights Centre of Ghent University and members of the inter-university Human Rights Integration project.

We are used to discuss and analyse the Strasbourg Court’s case law. We share our thoughts and findings in blogposts, papers and even PhDs and books. But how often do we share our methodologies? We are happy to announce a blogpost series on this precise question because, indeed, methodology is one of the biggest hurdles to overcome for legal scholars in general and for PhD researchers in particular.

A few months ago the Ghent University team of the Human Rights Integration project organised a PhD Seminar on methodological approaches towards case law research. The aim was to help PhD students working on case law to reflect on their methodology design and strengthen the methodological underpinnings of their research. As experience is an important source of knowledge, seven senior PhD researchers and fresh doctors in law illustrated which hurdles they struggled with and how they developed their methodology in order to overcome these problems. The initiative was most welcomed by students and academics and it became clear that this topic is a ‘universally’ challenging one for legal researchers. We then decided to encourage the sharing of methodological experiences once again, and bring some of the debates and insights from the Seminar here, to Strasbourg Observers.

In the course of the following weeks, this Blog will publish five posts written by some of the speakers at the above-mentioned seminar concerning their experience with case law research. The first one to be online is from Dorothea Staes, PhD researcher at the Université de Saint-Louis in Brussels and member of the Human Rights Integration Project. She will approach the issue of how to do research on the Strasbourg case law from the perspective of judicial behaviour, taking on board insights from extra-legal disciplines. The second post you will read is written by Laura Van den Eynde, doctoral researcher at the Université Libre de Bruxelles and affiliated to the same project. In her post, she will explore how to define and select landmark cases.

Next, Dr. Stijn Smet, Dr. Lourdes Peroni (both postdoctoral research fellows at the Human Rights Centre of Ghent University) and Dr. Saïla Ouald Chaib, who recently obtained her PhD at Ghent University, will discuss other methodological issues.

We hope this post series will be as helpful to you as the seminar was to us! Readers who would also like to share their experiences on legal research are, of course, warmly invited to do so in the comment section.