Untenable! - Vasciannie calls for change to CARICOM legal training pact, law school for UTech
'Untenable!' That's how law professor Stephen Vasciannie, the onetime head of the Norman Manley Law School (NMLS) at Mona, is describing the scheme of arrangements that gives only University of the West Indies (UWI) law degree holders automatic passage to the legal training and certification institution, while only accommodating a handful of non-UWI law degree recipients by way of an entrance exam each year.
Now president of the University of Technology (UTech) since January 3 this year, Vasciannie is advocating for changes to that regional pact, including the creation of a new law school at UTech. This, he said, can be self-financing or funded just as the three law schools that are creatures of a Caribbean region-wide governmental agreement - NMLS, Hugh Wooding Law School in Trinidad, and the Eugene Dupuch Law Schools in The Bahamas - are financed: with subventions from regional governments.
"The current situation, which has seen, for instance, fewer than 10 students from the UTech being admitted to the Norman Manley Law School (each year) is untenable. Something has to give. It is a fundamental point of concern," Vasciannie told The Gleaner in an interview.
Acknowledging that there are some who are of the view that UTech should not even have a law faculty, which it started nine years ago, the still newly minted president believes not only in the wisdom of the second university law faculty in Jamaica, but insists that UTech should be authorised to have its own law school for training and certification for the Bar.
CHANGES TO AGREEMENT
Achieving this will require prior changes to the Agreement Establishing the Council of Legal Education, in force since 1971, and involving Anguilla, Antigua and Barbuda, Barbados, Belize, The British Virgin Islands, The Cayman Islands, Dominica, Grenada, Jamaica, Montserrat, St Kitts-Nevis, St Lucia, St Vincent and the Grenadines, Trinidad and Tobago, as well as UWI and the University of Guyana.
There is precedent to the agreement being amended to facilitate the creation of a new law school as the original agreement established the legal training institutions in Jamaica and Trinidad alone, with the Bahamas location coming on stream in 1998 through a change to the agreement.
"This process of approval will require efforts on the part of the Government of Jamaica to get CARICOM countries to agree that there should be another law school," Vasciannie explained.
He has a general philosophy that leads him to this view: "There is now a situation in which many persons hold LLB degrees but are unable to complete their legal training. These are persons in whom our society has invested. Persons who wish to exercise their talents in a specified way, and they are being denied the opportunity. Universities, especially in developing countries, must exist to advance the personal development of the individuals in the society. Many of us are first-generation university graduates, we cannot, having come through that door, turn around and look at the people coming up the ladder and say, 'You cannot become a lawyer because there are too many lawyers'."
EQUITY IN LEGAL TRAINING
It might be surprising for some people to learn that the new UTech principal is not a new convert to this view and passion for equity in legal training.
"I have always been of the view that the preferential system for UWI students is not justifiable," he said, adding that he tried to convince others of this while he was principal of the law school between 2008 and 2012 and during his most recent stint as professor in the UWI Mona law faculty between 2016 and last year.
"When I was principal at the Norman Manley Law School, I recommended that the school should be expanded precisely to open up opportunities for graduates from the University of Technology and other non-UWI institutions. In the short run, I pressed for changes that saw an expansion of the intake at the law school from about 80 students (about 60 UWI and 20 others) to 130 students (60 UWI and 70 others, including UTech graduates)," Vasciannie noted.
He achieved this short-run change by introducing an evening stream of students at the law school despite strong negative reaction from some persons. For the longer term, the plan was to construct an additional building to accommodate more graduates from multiple sources.
The additional building became a reality after he left the law school in 2012. However, it appeared to have been in response to an expansion in the UWI undergraduate law programme. The NMLS capacity is now at approximately 180 students. With the introduction of a new faculty of law at Mona, in addition to the original law faculty based at Cave Hill in Barbados, UWI is producing about 160 LLB graduates each year. With UWI law faculties' first call on placement, the result is that NMLS has space for no more than roughly 20 students from other institutions.
This is a far cry from Vasciannie's long-held vision of equity.
"While I was principal at Norman Manley, I actually spoke with a class of students at UTech and explained that the general plan was to accommodate an approximately equal number of graduates from UWI and UTech. At the time, that would have been about 80 students from each university, as well as graduates from other places such as the University of London external degrees programme. In the year of my departure from the law school, I pressed for an increase in intake to 270, or falling short of that, 180 students," he stated.
He supported change within the Council of Legal Education.
"I sought to encourage the change by expanding opportunities so that everyone should have a fair chance to enter the law school. This, it seemed to me, would be easier to achieve simply by expanding places for non-UWI students," Vasciannie pointed out.