National LLB Task Team on access and quality legal education

July 1st, 2014

By Nomfundo Manyathi-Jele

At a meeting in May 2014, the National LLB Task Team indicated that until the standards for the LLB are published and finalised, entry to the profession still remains the four-year undergraduate LLB for current and prospective students.

The LLB Task Team comprises representatives from the South African Law Deans’ Association (SALDA), the Society of Law Teachers of Southern Africa (SLTSA), the Law Society of South Africa (LSSA), the General Council of the Bar (GCB), the Department of Justice and Correctional Services and the Department of Higher Education and Training.

The task team was established after a national LLB summit held in May 2013 resolved to establish standard setting under the auspices of the Council on Higher Education (CHE). The summit was held in order to find a common approach for optimising the value of legal education.

It was envisaged that the drafting of thetandards would be completed by the CHE by 30 June 2014.

In a joint statement, the LLB Task Team stressed that, in addition to standard-setting and the curriculum, it was also concerned about the under-funding of legal education, taking into account the resources available to faculties of law as well as students’ socio-economic backgrounds.

Following a legal ethics workshop held earlier this year, the LLB Task Team concluded that legal ethics must be an essential part of the legal education curriculum. The task team agreed that changes (if any) to the structure and duration of the LLB for national application can be best discussed once the new standards developed under the CHE have been finalised.

The LLB Task Team also confirmed its commitment to the goals stated by the late former Justice Minister Dullah Omar in 1997, when parliament considered the legislative changes that led to entry requirements to the legal profession becoming a four-year degree. ‘These stated goals are ensuring access to justice, access to the profession and access to the courts, and must be born in mind when the future structure and duration are considered,’ it stated.

Meanwhile, the University of the Witwatersrand’s School of Law (Wits) has announced that it will be offering the LLB degree as a second bachelor’s degree from 2015. This means that all Wits LLB graduates will graduate with two undergraduate bachelor’s degrees. The two-degree law programme is currently available at most South African law schools but will become compulsory at Wits from next year.

In a press release, the school’s head, Professor Vinodh Jaichand, stated that from next year students with an interest in law would have to complete either a three-year BA Law or BCom Law degree before enrolling for the two-year LLB programme. Those studying towards the four-year LLB would be allowed to continue with it.

The Co-chairpersons of the Law Society of South Africa, Ettienne Barnard and Max Boqwana said that the LSSA is committed to cooperating with all stakeholders to promote the reform of legal study which will ensure that the public receives the best possible service from professional and ethical legal practitioners. ‘These are hallmarks that will continue to distinguish lawyers as a profession, rather than a business. It is imperative that the LLB degree, in whatever form it is presented, should prepare students not only to enter practice effectively, but also to understand the context of the society which they will serve,’ they said in a press release.

The Co-chairpersons went on to say that the LSSA was firmly of the view that the design of the new LLB must also take cognisance of students’ financial position, adding that, if study is extended, assistance must be provided to ensure that access to the profession is not restricted. ‘On the other hand, the LSSA acknowledges that most law faculties are subject to financial constraints. They are often not in a position to attract or retrain senior teaching staff. This too affects the quality of law graduates as much the structure of the degree. The legal profession intends to approach the government in this regard. It is in principle unfair to expect faculties to produce excellence, if the playing fields are unequal,’ they said.

The four-year undergraduate LLB degree was introduced after the promulgation of the Qualification of Legal Practitioners Amendment Act 78 of 1997, and was designed to broaden access to legal education among the formerly disadvantaged by cutting a year’s financial cost off studying towards becoming a lawyer. However, indications from universities have been that only 20% of those who enter the four-year LLB programme complete it in four years.

In a statement in May, SALDA President, Professor Vivienne Lawack said: ‘It is recognised that a five-year law programme (including the two-degree option) is educationally sound and serves to prepare law graduates well for the legal profession and related careers. … SALDA and the legal profession have been lobbying for an extended LLB, namely a five-year programme which will be able to produce well equipped graduates for the legal profession and broader society.’

Nomfundo Manyathi-Jele,

This article was first published in De Rebus in 2014 (July) DR 8.