Urgent need for fundamental reform at Council of Legal Education but answer does not necessarily lie in more brick and mortar buildings

Dear Editor,

The Council of Legal Education (CLE) which is responsible for managing professional legal education in the Caribbean is set to meet in Guyana from September 6 – 8,  2018.  

Caribbean legal education is a two-tier system with the first tier being provided by the Faculty of Law, UWI which is responsible for academic training (the ‘what is the law) element).  The Council’s mandate is to provide at the second tier, vocational legal education (the ‘how do we implement the law’ element).  The ‘holy grail’ of the Council’s programme is the Legal Education Certificate which allows graduates to be qualified to practise law in any participating Caribbean jurisdiction subject to local requirements such as satisfying the local court that they are a fit and proper persons to do so.

At inception (and even up to today), the Council was and is exceptional in that it is the only system of legal (or higher) education from which graduates are legally qualified to be admitted to practise in another jurisdiction without further qualification and this spans 13 participating countries.  Further, it embraces several different systems of law – the English common law and the Civil Code of Europe.  It also sought, not only to fill the demand for legal practitioners regionally, but also to shape a Caribbean jurisprudence in a post-colonial era that would see legal principles developed that were peculiarly suited to the Caribbean and its people as well as to create a new breed of lawyers who were socially-conscious of their history, culture and Caribbean circumstances.

Genesis of the problem

Over the years and particularly from the publication of the Barnett Report of 1996, it was recognized that the Council could not keep up with the demand for places at their law schools.  Such demand came from graduates of the University of Guyana and the external programmes offered by English universities via distance education.  The Council’s response was to establish an entrance examination which sought to make entrance to non-UWI graduates available on the basis of merit for any residual places not filled by UWI graduates.

In the meantime, due to the demand for places and competition abroad, the UWI increased its intake, the University of Guyana became increasingly dissatisfied with its quota of 25 places annually and UTECH in Jamaica started its own LL.B. programme. 

In the last two years, as a result of these demands:

The Guyanese government has developed a plan to establish its own law school in collaboration with an overseas university.

The Jamaican government has indicated that it intends to fund a law school for UTECH graduates.

The government of Antigua and Barbuda wishes to have a law school there to attract overseas students as a source of foreign exchange.

The UWI principal is advocating for the establishment of a law school in Barbados.

ACSEAL (an association of qualified Caribbean students dissatisfied with the Council’s admissions policy) has initiated legal action against the governments of the Caribbean through CARICOM for an upheaval of the system. 

All of these developments are to be before Council later this week in Guyana.

Not only are these developments totally antithetical to the original vision and mission of Caribbean legal education, but a glaring irony is that all of the governments who are so dissatisfied with the Council’s response to the provision of vocational legal education are represented on the Council itself through their respective Attorney-General, Chief Justice and one (and in some cases two) representatives of the legal profession. 

In not putting the Council off the hook, it should be noted that:

Its programme of legal education is two years which is twice as long as any other programme of legal education internationally (even where there are fused professions);

Distance education which has been the impetus for the major increase in the number of qualified applicants to the Council has not been adopted by the Council itself to reduce face to face interaction in classroom which can be better devoted to more practical aspects of training;

New and improved methods to teaching/learning and assessment have been developed which can reduce time and improve the quality of learning and skill development;

There is a need for a revised curriculum in keeping with today’s demands going into the future and to not be a reflection of where Caribbean legal practice has been for the last 40 years;

A Major obstacle 

The programme devised by the government of Guyana has much to be said for it.  It is progressive and relevant but it is not the Council’s current programme.  At present, there are discrepancies between the programme of the Council being taught at the three law schools so that there has to be a level of quality assurance established by the Council to police itself.  The addition of a totally new programme which does not form part of a current programme raises issues involving curriculum reform, teaching and learning, assessment and quality assurance which I don’t think the Council can resolve in one meeting. 

It also raises fundamental issues of governance.  At present, the principal of each of Council’s law schools is an active and voting member of the Council.  If one government is allowed to establish its own law school, there is nothing in principle from denying such a demand from every other with a potential of an additional four law schools and four principals on the Council itself.  How does a governing body responsible for oversight of its executive branch have such oversight when there is such a large number of executives on its board who may exercise undue influence in the absence of independent professional advisors in education apart from those executives?

Issues to Consider

There is an urgent need for fundamental reform at the Council of Legal Education.  However, the answer does not necessarily lie in additional brick and mortar buildings which are expensive to construct and maintain and whose utility in producing legal professionals for the 21st century is extremely dubious.  The question as to the number and kind of lawyers that the Caribbean needs must be asked and answered.  There is also a need to redefine legal education in light of international developments in ICT and globalization where service industries (the legal profession being one of them) are now the drivers of economic development.  Indeed, for the Caribbean, we must move away from producing litigators and towards a new breed of lawyers whose field of operations has to be global and not local.  This is necessary for the legal profession to remain relevant and to become the facilitator of economic growth which it has to be.

The Council and participating governments needs to be reflective of the utility of Council’s governance arrangements, the politicizing of legal education by participating governments, the advent of new technologies which can render distance (cross-jurisdictional) teaching a viable option to include in a reconstruction of vocational legal education and a fundamental review of its curriculum based on its mission and vision, and the needs of Caribbean people.

Yours faithfully,

Michael Theodore

Retired course director at the

Hugh Wooding Law School

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