LLB graduates from private institutions are qualified to enter professional legal practice

June 1st, 2019
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Independent Institute of Education (Pty) Ltd v The KwaZulu-Natal Law Society and Others (KZP) (unreported case no 9090/18, 22-2-2019) (Sibiya AJ)

In this significant judgment, the applicant was the Independent Institute of Education (IIE), which is registered in terms of s 54(1)(c) of the Higher Education Act 101 of 1997, as amended, as a private higher education institute since 2007. This entitled the IIE to offer tertiary qualifications, such as diplomas, certificates and degrees at graduate and postgraduate level, in accordance with its accreditation. In May 2017 the Council on Higher Education, the body responsible for accrediting programmes of higher education in the country, accredited the IIE to provide the LLB degree at its campuses. In doing so, the Accreditation Committee of the Higher Education Quality Committee of the Council on Higher Education found the IIE to be on par with the course it offered in every respect with the LLB degrees offered by public universities.

In October 2017 the IIE was registered to offer the LLB degree at the National Qualifications Framework level 8, by the South African Qualifications Authority, the statutory body responsible for qualification standards set by the Minister of Higher Education. One of the stated purposes of the qualification is to prepare students for a career in professional legal practice, including practice as an advocate, attorney or prosecutor.

The IIE duly offered the LLB degree at six of its campuses that are designated as Varsity Colleges in various provinces and at different locations, and in the 2018 academic year, the IIE registered an approximate 200 first-year students.

On 19 January 2018, the first respondent, the KwaZulu-Natal Law Society (KZNLS) in response to a query from one of the student’s parents, indicated that the LLB degree offered by the IIE did not meet the requirements for admission as an attorney in terms of s 2(1) of the Attorneys Act 53 of 1979 (the 1979 Act). In this regard, it should be noted that the 1979 Act has subsequently been repealed in its entirety by the Legal Practice Act 28 of 2014 (LPA), which came into effect on 1 November 2018 and
s 2(1) of the 1979 Act has been replaced by s 26(1) of the LPA.

The KZNLS’ legal stance was premised on two arguments. First, the 1979 Act provides that an LLB obtained from a ‘university’ qualifies one for articles of clerkship, a prerequisite for admission as an attorney, and neither the applicant nor its Varsity College brand is a university. Secondly, the KZNLS advanced the reason that as of November 2017 the Council on Higher Education had listed all the institutions with an accredited LLB programme and the IIE was not listed as such an institution. The latter argument was subsequently withdrawn by KZNLS and was no longer an issue.

When the matter came before Sibiya AJ on the opposed motion roll on 11 December 2018, the KwaZulu-Natal Division of the High Court in Pietermaritzburg had to determine whether s 26(1)(a) of the LPA infringed the applicant’s constitutional rights to –

  • equality before the law in terms of s 9(1) of the Constitution;
  • freedom of trade, profession and occupation in terms of s 22 of the Constitution;
  • right to establish private education institutions in terms of s 29(3) of the Constitution; and
  • importantly, if this was indeed so, whether such infringements were reasonable and justifiable in terms of s 36 of the Constitution, namely the limitation clause.

Prior to this hearing, the matter was first enrolled on the motion roll on 25 September 2018 before Koen J in the form of an application brought on an urgent basis to review the decision of the KZNLS to refuse to recognise the IIE’s LLB degree as being sufficient for entry into the legal profession. In addition, the applicant sought a declaratory order that its LLB degree was duly registered and was the equivalent to the LLB degree offered by accredited public universities. On that occasion, Koen J adjourned the application sine die and granted the IIE leave to amend the relief it claimed and to supplement its papers.

The IIE did so, and that resulted in the revised content of the papers and relief sought before Sibiya AJ, who in her judgment addressed the issues, which are succinctly summarised below.

The court firstly addressed the meaning of the term ‘university’ and it referred to the Higher Education Amendment Act 9 of 2016 (the Act) that made the distinction between a university established under the Act and any other higher education institution. The court found that, with reference to the Act, the term ‘university’ could not be read to include the applicant and the applicant was, therefore, excluded. Although this sustained the argument advanced by the KZNLS, it did not, by any means, end the inquiry.

The court then dealt with the matter of greater legal and indeed constitutional significance, namely, whether s 26(1) of the LPA infringed or limited the IIE’s applicants’ rights under ss 9, 22 and 29(3) of the Constitution.

In doing so, the court dealt with the content of s 29(3) and found that the IIE, having shown that it met the criteria set out in s 29(3) and also those in ch 7 of the Higher Education Act, therefore, enjoyed the same rights to offer the accredited four-year LLB as public universities have and its exclusion from s 26 (1)(a) of the LPA unlawfully and unconstitutionally limited this right.

In addressing the cardinal importance of the right to equality before the law under s 9(1), the court ruled that the KZNLS had unfairly discriminated against the IIE and that the IIE and its students have the right to equal protection and benefit of the law. The court’s reasoning was that the minimum standards set for admission as an attorney was an LLB degree from a university. It held further that there is only one LLB degree that is accredited by the South African Qualifications Authority and it is the same for public universities, as well as for the IIE, a private tertiary institution. The court considered the confirmation of the Council on Higher Education that the applicant’s four-year LLB degree is in every respect on par with those from public universities. Furthermore, the court found there was no rational link between the impugned provision and the legislative purpose as reflected in all the relevant statutes. This meant that the differentiation that constituted the KZNLS’ argument for non-recognition, limited the IIE’s rights under s 9(1) of the Constitution, without valid justification.

In addressing the ambit of s 22 of the Constitution, the High Court referred to correspondence between the Minister of Higher Education and the Minister of Justice where the former stated at para 41 that: ‘The problem that section 26(1)(a) [of the LPA] creates is that LLB graduates who have obtained their qualification from registered private higher education institutions may not be given an opportunity to practice.’

The court’s statement at para 46 relating to the effect of s 26(1)(a) of the LPA is of singular importance, that is, ‘of limiting the entry into the profession to the LLB degree obtained from a university, when there is no material distinction between what is offered by a university and that offered by the applicant, cannot be said to be anything but arbitrary.’ The court concluded that s 26(1)(a) of the LPA limited the rights of the applicant and its LLB students.

The further inquiry examined whether the limitation of the rights under ss 9, 22 and 29(3) of the Constitution were justifiable under s 36, as the court had found that the distinction created by s 26(1)(a) of the LPA between LLB degrees in public universities and those from the IIE created an unnecessary and unjustifiable limitation to entry into the profession and consequently found the provisions of s 26(1)(a) to be unconstitutional and invalid.

The court order further stipulated that students who graduate with an LLB degree offered by the IIE after 1 January 2018, are as qualified to enter the practice of the legal profession as the graduates from public universities in South Africa.

As Sibiya AJ’s judgment involved the invalidation of a provision in parliamentary legislation it is required that the Constitutional Court must in terms of s 167(5) ratify or confirm the invalidation.

Geoffrey Abrahams BA (UWC) BProc LLM (Unisa) is a lecturer at IIE Varsity College, Durban North Campus.

This article was first published in De Rebus in 2019 (June) DR 23.