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Public law and criminal law

This module explores the relationship between the state and its citizens and critically analyses the principles underpinning constitutional and criminal law. The role and relevance of national constitutions is discussed and the key features of the UK constitution explored. The mechanisms for challenge and review of the actions of public bodies are then considered. The nature of sovereignty, the protection of individuals and the role of the police are discussed and evaluated before a range of criminal offences and defences are explored. Throughout the module, case studies are used to set theory in context and the international dimension of law is highlighted.

What you will study

This module covers important aspects of the relationship between the state and the individual in the UK. You'll explore the fundamentals of the UK constitution and some areas of administrative law, the law governing the administrative functions of the government and its agencies. You'll consider the criminal law of the jurisdiction of England and Wales.

Public law

You'll analyse the key features of the UK constitution in the context of a broader narrative about how constitutional arrangements evolve and change over time. The uncodified and incremental character of the UK constitution stresses its enduring and fairly static nature. As well as exploring the history of the UK constitution to highlight its evolution, you'll be introduced to a range of comparator constitutions from other jurisdictions which reveal the ways in which constitutional arrangements are shaped by and contingent on historical events. 

You'll evaluate the key concepts underpinning the UK constitution including the rule of law, the separation of powers and parliamentary sovereignty. You will analyse the rule of law as a principle that has developed over time and in different places. You'll explore its different possible meanings and consider the extent to which the UK constitution complies with its central ideas.

You'll then consider judicial review, the mechanism that allows state decisions to be challenged by individuals in the courts. This is an important area of administrative law, which helps maintain the rule of law by keeping public power in check. You'll see how this is incorporated into the constitutional arrangements of other states, before analysing the UK approach in more detail including the impact of human rights law in recent decades.

You'll scrutinise and critically analyse where sovereignty – supreme authority – lies in the UK constitution and the concept of sovereignty itself. You'll question whether the reality of sovereign authority is different from the theory, whether parliament is actually sovereign. You'll consider various challenges to this conception of sovereignty, including from international law, the European Union and the break-up of states into smaller, independent territories.

You'll complete your study of public law by evaluating the effectiveness of the operation of the UK constitution in protecting some of its key stakeholders. You'll analyse whether and how the parliamentary process maintains constitutional values, the community is safeguarded through the oversight of the police and the individual is protected through the incorporation of human rights and civil liberties.

Criminal law

You'll begin studying criminal law by placing the law itself in context by looking at how and why certain actions are criminalised by the state. You'll explore the elements of a criminal offence and some of the general principles underpinning the criminal law, including the standards of conduct and mental states required to commit criminal offences.

You'll then look in more detail at a series of violent offences and some of the defences that may be used to deny that the actions that would otherwise constitute a crime are unlawful. You'll analyse the common law offence of murder and its impact on the law relating to intention. You'll consider different forms of manslaughter and how and why they are differentiated from murder, using the partial defences of loss of control and diminished responsibility. You'll look at the areas of corporate criminal responsibility – how corporations are made liable under the criminal law, particularly for homicide – and criminal law reform, the process by which reforms to criminal law are proposed and accepted or rejected. You'll be introduced to selected offences against the person including assault and aggravated assault, and will evaluate the law relating to sexual offences, particularly rape. As part of this you'll consider some of the wider political and social factors that impact on this complex area.

In the closing units of the module, you'll critically analyse aspects of the criminal law. You'll explore property offences, such as theft and burglary, through an evaluation of the concept of property as a fundamental part of the law. You will consider the expanding limits of the criminal law in relation to inchoate offences, where the offender begins but does not complete committing a full criminal offence, and the mechanisms used to hold those other than primary offenders accountable for criminal acts. You'll conclude the module by bringing together aspects of public and criminal law to explore the social, political and legal contexts of human trafficking and modern slavery.

This module emphasises the critical and comparative analysis of public and criminal law so you'll understand not only the provisions of the law but also how they may be critiqued and reconceptualised and how similar concerns are tackled in other jurisdictions. It provides a broad context for your understanding of rules and principles that form the law in these areas. Alongside this you'll develop transferable legal and general study and employability skills. The activities and assessments you undertake will support the growth of personal and academic skills in areas such as communication, research, information technology, problem solving skills and self-reflection and appraisal.

Professional recognition

If you are intending to use this module as part of the LLB, and you hope to enter the Legal Professions, you should read carefully the careers information on The Open University Law School website. There are different entry regulations into the legal professions in England and Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. You should read the information on the website as it is your responsibility to ensure that you meet these requirements.

Entry requirements

This is an OU level 2 module and you will need the study skills required for this level of study, which may have been obtained either from OU level 1 study or from another university.

If you have any doubt about the suitability of the module, please speak to an adviser.

What's included

You'll be provided with two text books:

  • Ian Loveland, Constitutional Law, Administrative Law, and Human Rights: A critical introduction
  • Kyd, S, Elliott, T. and Walters, M.A. (2017)  Clarkson and Keating Criminal Law: Text and Materials.

 You’ll also have access to a module website, which includes:

  • a week-by-week study planner
  • module materials
  • assessment guides
  • online tutorials and forums 
  • electronic versions of the text books.

Computing requirements

You'll need a desktop or laptop computer with an up-to-date version of 64-bit Windows 10 (note that Windows 7 is no longer supported) or macOS and broadband internet access.

To join in spoken conversations in tutorials we recommend a wired headset (headphones/earphones with a built-in microphone).

Our module websites comply with web standards and any modern browser is suitable for most activities.

Our OU Study mobile App will operate on all current, supported, versions of Android and iOS. It's not available on Kindle.

It's also possible to access some module materials on a mobile phone, tablet device or Chromebook, however, as you may be asked to install additional software or use certain applications, you'll also require a desktop or laptop as described above.

Teaching and assessment

Support from your tutor

You’ll have a tutor with whom you can communicate by email, online forum, online conferencing, phone and, if required, post. Your tutor will help you with the study material, mark and comment on your written work, and provide advice and guidance, if you need it. Your tutor will also run face-to-face and online tutorials that you are encouraged to attend. You will also be offered three, one-to-one, sessions with your tutor.  These sessions are used to support you with your studies.

We aim to provide face-to-face tutorials in a range of locations students can travel to, though we cannot guarantee availability close to where you live, in specific locations, or locations that have been used previously. Student numbers on the module, and where tutors are based, will affect the locations of where tutorials are held, and what online alternatives are provided. Recordings will typically be made available to students.

Contact us if you want to know more about study with The Open University before you register.


The assessment details for this module can be found in the facts box.

You will be expected to submit your tutor-marked assignments (TMAs) online through the eTMA system unless there are some difficulties which prevent you from doing so. In these circumstances, you must negotiate with your tutor to get their agreement to submit your assignment on paper.

If you have a disability

The OU strives to make all aspects of study accessible to everyone and this Accessibility Statement outlines what studying W203 involves. You should use this information to inform your study preparations and any discussions with us about how we can meet your needs.

Future availability

Public law and criminal law starts once a year – in October. This page describes the module that will start in October 2022. We expect it to start for the last time in October 2023.

Course work includes:

4 Tutor-marked assignments (TMAs)
End-of-module assessment
No residential school