If the present law school difficulty is not overcome and the ideal of the law programme founders disintegrates, we shall have failed

Dear Editor,

In 1970, the Caricom Heads of Government crafted a comprehensive system of legal education for Caribbean lawyers. Mindful of the need to make the most with slim resources, the decision was taken to offer the new University of the West Indies’ (UWI) law degree at Cavehill Campus, Barbados. The students would spend their first year in their home countries, and the second and final years in Barbados. After that, depending on which country they were from, they would read for the Bar at either of the Council of Legal Education’s (CLE) two law schools in Jamaica and Trinidad. Students from the western Caribbean attended Jamaica and the eastern and southern Caribbean went to Trinidad. Each of the Caricom countries was given a quota.

At the time, one of the attractions for the heads was an opportunity to replicate the new spirit that had first flowered at London University in the 1950s, where young students from around the Third World met, exchanged ideas, and forged lasting bonds that would endure to their countries’ benefit upon their own accession to high office in their respective native lands. Cavehill was seen as an ideal crucible in which to smelt and forge a new Caribbean identity and nationality. Our Attorney-General of that time, now Sir Shridath S Ramphal, SC, and the first Director of the Norman Manley Law School, the late Aubrey Fraser, worked assiduously to realise this dream.

The UWI degree went from strength to strength, winning accreditation from bodies such as the New York State Bar, Osgoode Hall of Canada, and the Law Society of the United Kingdom. Some of its graduates are persons such as Prime Minister of St Lucia Kenny Anthony, and our own Chancellor Carl Singh, Chief Justice Ian Chang, and Kenneth Benjamin, Chief Justice of Belize, all of whom have held high office in the Caribbean.

With the advent of the late 1970s Guyana experienced severe economic difficulties. Up to that time, the Caricom governments had met the economic cost of their quotas, which was quite substantial (US$25,000 per student per year). However, by the early 1980s Guyana fell into default. By the early 1990s, Guyana’s default had become chronic and had caused friction among the other contributing countries. Guyana then began to explore the possibility of easing its contributions by introducing the second year here as well. UWI and the CLE, although sympathetic, were wary of incurring any risk to the hard won accreditations mentioned before, and decided that if Guyana wished to have the second year in Guyana, it should offer the third year as well as a complete UG degree. The UWI and CLE would be supportive, and a collaborative accommodation was arrived at whereby UWI would assist UG in areas such as setting a course curriculum, and the setting and second marking of examinations.

Guyana’s quota of 25 students under the original agreement was preserved, the top 25 graduates of the UG degree programme being afforded automatic places at the Hugh Wooding Law School. The others would compete with graduates of other universities for admission on the basis of an examination. At the time, the rationale was the availability of space at the Hugh Wooding Law School.

As time went by, other Caribbean countries now began to be attracted to the lead opened up by Guyana, and both Jamaica and Trinidad began to consider offering the entire degree at the Mona and St Augustine campuses. Their rationale was cost, and the fact that there were already two campuses with all the facilities in place to house the degree programme in these islands. In or around 2012, Trinidad and Jamaica both began to offer a local law degree. Barbadians, Bahamians, and students from the Eastern Caribbean continued to attend Cavehill. The graduates of all three degree programmes would enjoy automatic acceptance at the CLE’s law schools.

There was an immediate consequence for Guyana. As the law schools had been only marginally expanded over the years, they could not now accommodate all of the students who wished to attend there. As Trinidad covered the cost of the Hugh Wooding Law School, naturally its graduates would have to be accommodated there. Guyana was informed that from 2014, its 25 UG degree graduates would no longer enjoy automatic accommodation, and would have to seek admission on the basis of the availability of places and performance at an entrance examination.

A great outcry arose from the students from Guyana, and at the urging of Guyana’s President and Attorney General, the Chairman of Caricom Sir Ralph Gonsalves wrote to the CLE enquiring what could be done to assist Guyana’s students. The CLE’s response as reported was that due to considerations of space and facilities, Hugh Wooding would only be able to consider these students after it had placed the UWI/St Augustine applicants. It noted that there may be places available at its Eugene Dupuch Law School in the Bahamas. There now appears to be an impasse for the Guyanese students. What is to be done?

From the CLE’s response, there are three possibilities. The first is for Guyana to establish its own law school. This – although superficially attractive – would have to be thought through very carefully, however, because if other Caricom territories are not convinced of the soundness of its programme content, they may withdraw the automatic entry to their national Bars presently enjoyed under the aegis of the CLE’s law schools. It is to the credit of Guyana’s Attorney-General that I have recently read in the national media that he is reported not to favour this. This is a sound position that should be applauded.

The second is for Guyana to exercise some financial discipline and to return to the fold of the UWI degree at Cavehill by resuming the economic cost for its students. Guyana’s economy has weathered the recent global financial crisis quite credibly, and Guyana ought to be able to find the required sums should it really wish to do so. The government could provide the nucleus of a fund of foreign currency that, if invested with a hedge fund or premier investment house, the interest would fund Guyana’s obligations in much the same way as the Trust Fund for the Caribbean Court of Justice is structured.

The third alternative is for Guyana to press the Caricom Heads to expand the law schools of the region, particularly Hugh Wooding, that its graduates would attend. This would entail again, serious financial commitments by all of the Caricom nations, not only in terms of infrastructure, but also of human resources and course materials (subscriptions for law books, etc). Either of the second or third alternatives would assure our students of a place in a scheme of continuing quality legal education. To do less would be a scathing indictment on the successors to those Heads of Government in 1970 who had envisaged a comprehensive Caribbean system of legal education and made it a reality. What is regrettable is that these heads’ dream fabric of Caribbean integration has now been sorely rent by petty nationalism and individualistic indiscipline. Whereas from 1970 we had Cavehill, Barbados, as the successor to London University as the incubator for our future Caribbean leaders, we now have Trinidadians at St Augustine, Guyanese at University of Guyana, and Jamaicans at Mona. This was not what was envisaged by the founders of the law programme and constitutes the most serious test of our commitment to their visionary ideal. If the present difficulty is not overcome and the fabric is rent completely asunder into little island enclaves, we shall have failed comprehensively. My concern is in no small part due to my involvement with the structuring of the UWI/CLE Law Programme from its inception.

 

Yours faithfully,

B T I Pollard, SC

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