Mon | Dec 11, 2017

Editorial | Is monopoly on legal education right?

Published:Tuesday | October 24, 2017 | 12:00 AM

Stephen Vasciannie has offered a frank reminder of the need for a frank debate on the efficacy of the system for training lawyers in the English-speaking Caribbean, including the reasonableness of the near-monopoly of access to the region's law school afforded to graduates of the University of the West Indies (UWI). Professor Vasciannie clearly thinks it isn't and wants the same right of admission to the students of the University of Technology (UTech), Jamaica, of which he is president.

"Our basic request is that the Jamaican government put an end to a system of law school training that discriminates against University of Technology, Jamaica, students," he told this newspaper. "The Government of Jamaica should not allow discrimination against its own university."

We have, in the past, expressed unease with UTech's expansion beyond its supposed core of science and technology by offering degrees in areas such as business, law, and similar subjects, which account for around a third of its student enrolment. But that, in this circumstance, is beyond the point or the relevance of Professor Vasciannie's observation.

The background to this issue is the near half-century-old agreement, since the early 1970s, among several Commonwealth Caribbean states, that lawyers who practise in the courts should, primarily, be trained in the region. The Council for Legal Education (CLC) was established to regulate this training.

The CLC operates three law schools - in Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, and the Bahamas - some of whose operational activities are effectively outsourced to the University of the West Indies (UWI), which is owned by regional governments. Under the CLC's treaty, graduates with UWI law degrees have automatic access to the council's law schools to complete two years of professional training, which is a requirement to be called to the Bar in most territories. University of Guyana (UG) graduates enjoy a similar dispensation under a cooperation agreement with UWI with regard to law degrees.

Graduates of other institutions, whose law degrees are deemed equivalent to the UWI's, or who have had other forms of legal training deemed appropriate to the CLC, can attend its law schools but have to satisfy entrance exams and are admitted subject to space. And space is a big part of the problem.

 

STUDENT DEMAND

 

In the 43 years since attendance of the law schools became mandatory for practice in the Caribbean, demand for legal degrees - and subsequent law-school training - has grown exponentially in the region. It used to be the case that a Jamaican law student did the first year of his degree at the Mona campus and completed the remaining two years at the law faculty at Cave Hill, Barbados. A law faculty is now at Mona, a response to student demand and the cost of studying in Barbados. UTech established its law schools, and myriad other institutions also offer law degrees in association with external universities. With a surfeit of graduates, large numbers of them can't find space at the Norman Manley Law School at Mona, or, even if they could afford it, any of the other two.

The issue of UTech has been compounded, as Professor Vasciannie sees it, by the recent accreditation of its law degree by the University Council of Jamaica (UCJ), the Government's academic course-accreditation body. Except the UCJ's accreditation doesn't trump the stipulation under the CCL agreement, never mind that, as Professor Vasciannie pointed out, UTech is owned by the Jamaican Government.

This issue of access to the law schools is not new. Two decades ago, even as it supported continued "preferential status" for UWI law graduates, a committee led by Dr Lloyd Barnett lamented the CLC's inability to increase capacity at the then existing law schools because of the inadequacy of funding. But it struggled to find a way of "increasing the opportunities for legal education and to satisfy the needs of contributing governments". The matter, it said, should be explored.

The question is whether in these times, any institution, or body, should enjoy a monopoly on training.