How To Ace The Human Rights Section In Legal Studies

“Human Rights” as a section in Legal Studies is the smallest in terms of marks, accounting for only 15 marks out of the whole 100 in the HSC exam. Nevertheless, it’s still important to be able to maximise your marks in this section.

Post written by Wayne Kwok (13th in the state Legal Studies 2015). See all articles first and personally get in touch with our state rankers here

As with all of Legal Studies, the syllabus is your best friend. The questions are rarely ambiguous in terms of what specific topic they’re asking about, and so if you’ve prepared sufficiently for each dot-point, there’s almost nothing which will stump you in the exam. Hence, preparing well in terms of your notes is paramount.


Unlike other sections of the Legal Studies exam, definitions can, and frequently are, tested.

Hence, it’s good to have prepared in your notes definitions of key issues, for example a good definition of “human rights” or explanation of “unalienable rights”.

Being able to swiftly recall a concise definition is really important for your time management skills in the exam. Additionally, under the section heading “development of human rights”, it is not necessary to have in your notes a detailed history of each of the listed rights like they do in the textbooks. It’s sufficient to have a definition of what the specific right entails, and then 3–4 statutes or treaties in which this right is enshrined.

For example, for the dot-point “universal education”, your notes might have a brief definition (e.g. “free education for all children, which arose in the Western World through the imposition of compulsory primary education”), and then three sources of recognition (e.g. “recognised in the ICESCR, the UN Declaration of Human Rights and the Public Schools Act 1866”).

This kind of summary is very easy to memorise and makes it easy to comprehensively but concisely answer a question on the dot-point.

Examples and cases

In addition to definitions, you also need to, in your notes, prepare legislation, cases, media reports for each section of the syllabus to use in the exam. Just like above, you want to make sure you are able to memorise your examples and can easily apply them to questions.

For example, under the dot-point “statute law”, I prepared three pieces of legislation (the Racial Discrimination Act, Sex Discrimination Act and Disability Discrimination Act), which I would use if a question on the dot-point came up. For each of these statutes, I memorised what international treaty they were passed in response to, as well as a comment on the legislation’s effectiveness:

Human rights in Australia are mostly protected by statute law, usually in response to global treaties, three examples are:
- Racial Discrimination Act 1975 (Cth) in response to ICEARD 1969; in 2014 the government attempted to repeal certain sections of the legislation, highlighting statute law’s malleability.
- Sex Discrimination Act 1984 (Cth) in response to CEDAW 1979, makes it illegal to discriminate based on sex, however women still earn 17% less than men.
- Disability Discrimination Act 1992 (Cth) protects the rights and dignity of those with disabilities. 2004 Productivity Commission report noted that whilst workplace discrimination had been reduced, the average disabled income was still 44% below the average income.

As you can see, it’s much easier and more efficient to remember three specific pieces of legislation for this dot-point, instead of having a broad list of human rights related statutes which you will try and recall during the exam to a given question.

Ultimately for me, in the HSC there was a 5-mark question on statute law and human rights, so having this form of preparation was extremely invaluable.

In terms of the ICCPR or other international instruments, you should memorise about 3–4 of the rights which the treaty protects, as well as a concise explanation of what the treaty stands for. Questions which ask you to identify the rights conferred by specific human rights treaties are amongst the most common in Legal Studies trial exams.

Look back on previous years

Be practical and note down what has been asked in the previous year’s HSCs for this section.

For example, in 2014 there was a question about the Australian Constitution and its protection of human rights (taken straight from the syllabus). Thus, it’s pretty unlikely that this question would be asked again in the 2016 HSC, so it’s something to consider when making your notes in terms of priority.

Having said this, you should not completely neglect any area of the syllabus because you know it’s been tested previously, not least because your trial exams would obviously not be predictable in this respect.

Moreover, there has been a trend towards the final human rights question being a relatively broad one which requires you to bring together different parts of the syllabus, so it would be prudent to have at least a general understanding of each section, even if it has been asked in previous years.

Writing your responses

The most important thing is to write based on how many lines are given. Unlike other subjects, where being as lengthy as possible helps you get marks, it’s not as important in Legal Studies.

Hence, there is no need to write more than what is given and certainly no need to ask for extra booklets. Nevertheless, still try to fit as much as you can into the given lines.

Whilst it is true that using effusive or sophisticated language can be a benefit, you still need to have proper, meaningful points, backed up by enough examples, in order to consistently do well in this section.

Moreover, in longer (5 or 6 mark) questions, there’s no need to spend too long “introducing” an idea beyond an effective definition. You should always aim to get into specific examples and cases as quickly as possible, because it’s through these that you’ll be able to show that you have a more in-depth knowledge than someone who has just read the textbook.

Overall, whilst this may seem like a lot of work for one section of a subject which most people don’t find too difficult, it’s definitely worth it in order to maximise your marks in a subject with such a large cohort and where scaling isn’t optimal. Luckily, the predictable nature of this section, arising from the syllabus, means it is possible to prepare efficiently whilst still extracting as many marks as possible.

Post written by Wayne Kwok (13th in the state Legal Studies 2015)

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