By Chilli Pepper
Saturday 7 October 2023 – An initial version of this article identified Burgmann College as being linked to the ‘Law Files’. This has been retracted and we apologise
for any distress this may have caused.
Several months ago, I complained to a classmate about the normal aches and pains of being a law student. I was initiating the university equivalent of a mating ritual - I complained and she would complain back, like two exotic birds bobbing our heads and flapping our wings.
“My summaries are so far behind.”
“Oh my god, I haven’t even made my case notes yet.”
“I’m going to fail the exam at this rate.”
This was only partly an exaggeration for the sake of ceremony. I hadn’t opened my textbook yet, let alone started preparing for the exam. She very kindly responded by offering me something she referred to as the ‘law file’. This wasn’t a part of the dance.
“What’s the ‘law file’?”
“Oh, it’s like a Google Drive where ANU college students compile summaries, exams, exemplar responses, that kind of stuff. A few of the halls have them.”
I politely declined, but spent the rest of the class feeling like I was suddenly standing on the outside of some large conspiracy. Was this common knowledge at the ANU? Were the ‘law files’ another way students from more prestigious halls had the upper hand over their colleagues? Or, had every law student agreed to keep this quiet, and I was the only one naïve enough to assume we were all doing the work? Undoubtedly, the latter was untrue, but the feeling was the same. I felt like the only first grader not invited to the popular girls sleepover. And just like a first grader, I was going to be a whiny shit about it.
In the coming weeks, I found myself bringing up this discovery to anyone who would listen. I needed everyone to feel the same way I did - that this was unjust and unfair, and all too familiar to the ANU’s ethos. Some people did express shock. For others it was jealousy, followed by questions of ‘do you know if there is one for my degree?’. A majority were completely unsurprised - they shared stories of friends who complained they wouldn’t have these pre-prepared summaries for their exchange courses, to classmates who mysteriously possessed complete notes weeks ahead of the content. It was apparent this was the worst kept secret of the ANU.
However, it was the institutionalisation of this practice by some of the most expensive residential halls which had my feathers entirely ruffled. We know there is a $260 difference between the weekly rates of the most and least expensive undergraduate accommodations. We know high socioeconomic status (SES) students are more likely to be accepted into university than those with lower SES. We also know students with higher SES are less likely to drop out than those with low SES. In all likelihood, it is the university students who are already ahead benefitting from these completed course notes. However, while these files represent another homerun for those economically advantaged, they also reflect a complete disregard for the academic rules in place to equalise that playing field.
We’ve all been warned repeatedly, and with great emphasis, of the consequences attached to being caught cheating at the ANU. The Academic Integrity Module is an online subject we all completed in first year. From a fail mark, a strike on your academic record, to the extremity of suspension, a fear is instilled in us before we even get to sit in a university classroom. For law students, this sword dangles from a precariously thinner thread - we are cautioned that, for us, a breach of academic integrity can result in refusal of admission to the legal profession.
The logic behind this flows both from the moral and practical requirements of being accepted into legal practice. The first, being the ‘fit and proper person’ requirement, intends to ensure potential lawyers don’t have a disposition to dishonesty and malfeasance. A requirement of the same nature can be traced all the way back to Ancient Rome and the Theodosian Code, but the reasoning still holds: if you want to be one of society's representatives of justice and truth you can’t also be a big fat liar. The practical aspect is best explained by an analogy I have thrown around on a couple of occasions. That being, if you found out your surgeon had been caught cheating on their ‘Introduction to Surgery’ exam, you probably wouldn’t be jumping on to the operating table.
But do these files constitute cheating? While sharing notes won’t be found in most definitions of the word, it does fall under the often-overlooked aspect of academic misconduct called collusion. The ANU College of Law, consistent with the Academic Integrity Rule 2021 (‘the Rule’), defines collusion as ‘the involvement of more than one person…in an instance of academic dishonesty.’ Academic dishonesty is not a term defined by the Rule. While this leaves us very little to go off – thank you Brian, very cool – the ANU College of Law gives us some more concrete examples. They explain that while not an assessment itself, class summaries which ‘you create in the context of assessment, must be your own work’. While you can discuss the content of a summary, ‘the product which you take into an exam must be your own’. There it is, in plain writing, that shared class notes are collusion.
I don’t expect everyone to agree that the ‘law files’ are cheating. For classes other than law they may not be, as many other fields of study encourage collaboration and teamwork. However, reading and summarising cases, extracting legal reasoning, and applying tests, is the majority of our work as students of law. One could also argue that through relying on these files, students won’t actually learn to critically engage with the law. Nonetheless, I refer you again to the Rule, s 12(2)(m), which defines academic misconduct as ‘engaging in conduct with the intention of gaining…an unfair or unjustified advantage’. Students who use the ‘law files’ are potentially saving themselves up to fourteen hours a week in law readings. We must acknowledge that the ‘law files’ create an absurd disparity between the work loads of those who have them, and those who don’t. This may not seem like a big deal to some people. It may seem like a very big deal to others. However, the fact that students at some of ANU’s most elite colleges have, for years, carried lighter loads than their peers cannot be viewed as anything other than further proof of the systemic benefits of socioeconomic privilege.
The girl who offered me those notes wasn’t ill intentioned. She genuinely believed she was doing me a favour. When I asked her, she hadn’t even known the ‘law files’ could be considered cheating. And yet, you can’t help but feel a little bit angry at the perpetuation of this advantage by your fellow peers. You can’t help but feel a little bit angry that there will always be another safety net that you aren’t privy to. You can’t help but feel a little bit angry that cheats have prospered, and will continue to prosper, at the ANU.
 Deborah Rhode, ‘Moral Character as Professional Credential’ (1985) 94 Yale Law Journal 493.