LLB summit: Legal education in crisis?

July 1st, 2013
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By Mapula Sedutla

The much-awaited LLB Summit, initiated by the South African Law Deans’ Association (SALDA), the Law Society of South Africa (LSSA) and the General Council of the Bar (GCB), took place on 29 May.

Speakers who discussed the future of the LLB degree included LSSA co-chairperson Kathleen Matolo-Dlepu; acting Judge of the Constitutional Court Ronnie Bosielo; and chief executive officer of the Council for Higher Education (CHE), Ahmed Essop.

The summit’s programme also included a panel discussion and breakaway group sessions.

Welcoming delegates, Ms Matolo-Dlepu said that the summit ought to address challenges related to the LLB. She added that the objective of the summit was to deal with the ‘LLB crisis’, to examine ‘the root of the problem’ and to make recommendations on how to improve the degree.

The four-year degree

During a keynote address, Judge Bosielo recalled that he had actively participated in the debates in the 1990s that culminated in the four-year LLB degree. He indicated that, at the time, he was a member of the Black Lawyers Association (BLA), which ‘argued forcefully … for the adoption of the four-year LLB degree’.

He added: ‘The principle reason for that stance was simply because we were trying to address what were then serious problems encountered by law students from historically disadvantaged communities. One was that the length of the LLB degree … was seen to be an impediment to those who did not have the financial resources …  We were concerned with the spread of lawyers in the country in ratio to the population of the country; the sad reality was that we had very few black lawyers in the country. The intention was that, by shortening the degree, perhaps we would open the doors for students from previously disadvantaged communities to enter university and come out within a very short period of time.’

Judge Bosielo believed that it was now time to evaluate the four-year degree and question if it was achieving the goals set 15 years ago and, if not, to identify where the problem lay and decide on what could be done to remedy the situation.

He said: ‘It is universally accepted that … the strength, … vitality and vibrancy of any constitutional democracy depends largely on the quality, the pedigree and integrity of its lawyers. … A weak legal profession will invariably produce weak judges. In my view, if the legal profession is populated by lawyers with low standards, … this would be reflected in the structure of the judiciary.’

Judge Bosiolo said that the legal profession needed to ask itself if it was training and producing lawyers who believed in fairness, equality and justice. Further, the profession needed to ask if the current LLB degree was adequate and appropriate to train the lawyers who were needed today – lawyers who act ethically and who understand the Constitution and the future role they will have to play. In his view, lawyers should have the spirit of ubuntu and be willing to sacrifice, instead of being selfish; they should be socially conscious and develop the ethos of ‘batho pele’; and they must be prepared to serve the community.

He noted that the recent ‘chorus of complaints’ on the quality of LLB graduates, which claimed that graduates lacked broad skills, including writing, reading, ethics and an understanding of the Constitution, ‘cannot be brushed aside’.

He added that it was ‘comforting’ that the ‘real stakeholders’, such as the GCB, the Society of Law Teachers of Southern Africa (SLTSA), the BLA, the National Association of Democratic Lawyers, the LSSA and SALDA had identified difficulties in the LLB degree.

He said that the world had changed into a global village and, therefore, the legal profession could not remain the same. The profession has no choice but to change its mindset – ‘adapt or you will perish,’ he said.

In closing, Judge Bosiolo said that he was confident that the summit’s delegates, given their spread of experience, would develop a solution to assist universities to produce lawyers who will be an asset to South Africa’s democracy.

Perspectives on the LLB

In a panel discussion, representatives from different law faculties and the legal profession discussed their perspectives on the degree. The panel comprised senior lecturer at the department of private law at the University of Cape Town, Dr Lesley Greenbaum; President of SALDA, Professor Vivienne Lawack; Vice-president of SLTSA, Professor Engela Schlemmer; representative of the GCB, advocate Leon Dicker; and the chief executive officer of the LSSA, Nic Swart.

Former co-chairperson of the LSSA, Krish Govender, chaired the discussion.

At the outset, Mr Govender said: ‘A student is a product of a good society, community, parents or values … . The law faculty is not going to fix the student at the end of the day.’

He said that students needed to understand the context of law in the global village and where the law faculties fitted in. He said that the content and philosophy of the LLB degree should nurture a student to ‘think outside the box’ and be a better lawyer. He added that the LLB degree should produce graduates who will play a better role in society.

Dr Greenbaum said that, even though the four-year LLB degree was introduced to reduce costs and increase access to the law profession, ‘the harsh reality is 22% of students complete the degree in four years,’ she said.

She added that challenges students faced included the inadequacy of primary and secondary education, which left them unprepared for university, as they lack digital knowledge, literacy and numeracy skills.

Professor Lawack noted that students who obtained a BA Law or BCom degree prior to registering for an LLB degree had a higher completion rate in the minimum period compared to those who registered for the LLB degree as a first degree. She added that universities were aware that students lacked skills in areas such as ethics, legal knowledge and critical analysis. To curb this, she said that universities had made interventions, with varying degrees of success. She observed that there was a correlation between the low completion rate of the LLB in the minimum period and the inadequate schooling system.

Another challenge related to the degree, Professor Lawack said, was an absence of resources at universities, as law schools’ subsidy level was at the lowest government funding band in education. She said that for every R 1 a law student received, a history student received R 2, an engineering student received R 3 and a life studies student received R 4.

She added that government perceived teaching law as ‘cheap’. However, she said this was not accurate and more funding was needed to maintain law clinics and libraries, which she said were the ‘laboratories of law schools’. She added that government should, therefore, increase legal education funding.

Professor Lawack said that the role of law clinics should be intensified and clarified, and lawyers in practice should assist law schools by supervising cases at law clinics. She said that law students needed to cultivate a discipline that will enable them to generate new knowledge so that they are able to approach the problems and issues they will encounter when they graduate.

Professor Lawack recommended that the LLB degree be extended to a mandatory five-year period, but said that more law modules should not be included; the aim being to enable law students to acquire the required skills, with the possibility of introducing non-law modules to help students understand the context in which law is practised.

Professor Schlemmer was of the view that the effectiveness of the LLB degree must be reviewed. She suggested that students write an entrance examination prior to registering for the degree in order to assess their reasoning and deduction skills, because, she said, universities could not ‘pretend to provide skills on a scientific level unless the student possesses the skills’.

She added that at some universities the dean’s performance was dependent on the students’ pass rate; therefore, students were ‘spoon-fed’ to prepare them to write examinations. In turn, this meant that students did not understand complex legal concepts and were unable to understand legal problems.

Professor Schlemmer said the advantage of a postgraduate LLB degree was that it could provide students with skills, for example in the advanced law of succession, as there was ‘little time for that’ in the current LLB degree. She said that other advantages of the postgraduate LLB degree were that students would acquire an exit-level degree after three years and the government funding level would change.

Mr Swart said that the law profession needed lawyers with skills to apply the law, who are ethical, who understand the pressures of the profession and who understand what is necessary to manage a successful practice. He added: ‘Whatever the duration, we should have a degree that gives us value.’

Mr Dicker recalled that when he studied law, the dean of the faculty of law said that the faculty was not in the business of producing law mechanics, but was rather in the business of producing well-rounded jurists. He said: ‘We should look at going back to the old model and prepare students for today’s practice. The starting point would be to enable students to acquire the right culture and be able to perform duties that are required in practice. The GCB is in agreement with the LSSA that the period of the LLB degree should be extended to five years.’

LLB review

Mr Essop said that there had been a process of engagement between the CHE and the law deans, with the objective of reviewing the LLB degree. He said that some of the issues raised at the summit would be taken to the council.

He also referred to a survey on the LLB degree that was conducted by the CHE in 2010, but was not released. He said: ‘There was a section in the survey that looked at the four-year degree and the inconsistency in the way the degree was presented. For instance, some universities require students to accumulate 480 credits per year, while others only require 120 credits.’

Mr Essop said that, while the CHE had authority to decide on the duration of the LLB in terms of the Higher Education Act 101 of 1997, academic integrity of the qualification would be attained through the support of the profession and the process of improving the LLB degree should be peer driven.

In order to have a better quality LLB degree, Mr Essop said the profession should ask:

  • What is the purpose of the qualification?
  • What is the knowledge a student will gain through the qualification?
  • What legal knowledge is a graduate expected to have?
  • What underpins the qualification?
  • What is the purpose of what the student is learning?
  • Is what the student is learning related to legal challenges in the rest of the world?
  • Is the duration of four years sufficient?
  • Is a postgraduate degree a better route?

Mr Essop said the common perception that only students from previously disadvantaged schools did not complete the degree in regulation time was untrue.

He said that there was a need to assess issues of funding and staffing of law faculties, which would be looked at in a national degree review. Based on what the review finds, Mr Essop said that the CHE could make a case for additional resources in law faculties.

Resolutions

Following the group discussions during the summit, delegates requested the CHE to conduct a standard setting process for the LLB, to commence by 30 September 2013 and to be concluded by 30 June 2014.

Further, the exercise must include stakeholders in consultation with the steering committee of the summit.

The exercise will attend to –

  • graduate attributes identified at the summit, such as knowledge of substantive law, generic skills (for eg those related to language, literacy, numeracy, research, analysis and information technology), ethics and a commitment to social justice;
  • workplace requirements;
  • resources; and
  • problem areas identified at the summit.

It was also resolved that standard setting for the degree will include wide consultation and ongoing liaison with the relevant stakeholders, and an LLB national task team will be convened to monitor this process.

The task team will be made up of two members from each of the following: SALDA, the GCB, the LSSA, the Justice Department, SLTSA, the Department of Higher Education and Training and any other relevant stakeholder. The task team will be convened by SALDA and the LSSA before 31 August 2013.

Further, the agenda of the task team will be set by the steering committee, taking into account the outcome of the summit.

The structure of the LLB, considering that the consensus at the summit was that the duration of the degree should be five years, as well the issue of funding, in particular with regard to law clinics, will be the first items on the agenda of the task team.

Mapula Sedutla, mapula@derebus.org.za

 This article was first published in De Rebus in 2013 (July) DR 8.