Time to change the LLB degree?

July 1st, 2019

The LLB degree and its efficacy to produce suitable candidate legal practitioners has sparked a lot of discussion in the legal profession. The profession has widely expressed concern over the skills gap presented by law graduates when entering the legal profession and their ability to perform certain tasks they ought to know as graduates.

In 2012, the Council on Higher Education (CHE) and the South African Law Deans’ Association (SALDA), after extensive talks, reached an agreement to conduct a national review of the LLB programme. An LLB summit was held in 2013, which was attended by stakeholders in the legal profession. During the summit, the General Council of the Bar (GCB) and the Law Society of South Africa (LSSA) also decided that a national review of the LLB programme should be conducted. The aim of the review was to strengthen the quality of legal education provision across South African universities (see ‘LLB summit: Legal education in crisis?’ 2013 (July) DR 8).

The LLB summit also proposed that the standard development process should precede the start of the proposed national review of the LLB programme. The threshold standard was envisaged to serve as a national benchmark against which all programmes leading to the LLB qualification would be measured. The qualification standard for the LLB was developed during 2013 to 2015, which was endorsed by all universities in 2015.

In 2015, a national review of the LLB qualification was conducted. The purpose of the review was to make recommendations on the re-accreditation of the existing LLB programmes or the accreditation of new LLB programmes. In April 2017, 13 programmes were conditionally accredited, and four were placed on notice of withdrawal. After improvements were made by the institutions, in November 2017 four LLB qualifications were accredited, ten received accreditation subject to meeting specified conditions, three were placed on notice of withdrawal, and one LLB qualification had its accreditation withdrawn. The accreditation of the LLB was made subject to those institutions meeting specified conditions and those whose qualification was placed on notice of withdrawal were given a further opportunity to submit improvement plans. The improvement plans will be evaluated and the decision of the accreditation of the LLB programme will be based on the improvement plans (see also ‘Legal education in crisis?’ 2017 (May) DR 3, ‘CHE release full LLB review’ 2017 (June) DR 3; ‘LSSA calls on CHE to consult legal profession on LLB degree issues’ 2017 (June) DR 19; and ‘Withdrawal of accreditation – response from universities’ 2017 (July) DR 4).

2018 Review

In November 2018, the CHE released the ‘The State of the Provision of the Bachelor of Laws (LLB) Qualification in South Africa’ report, which has the following recommendations that have been divided into four broad themes:

  • Curriculum reform

The findings indicate that there is a wide diversity of LLB curricula in South Africa. There are commonalities among the curricula, but no one curriculum closely approximates another. It is recommended that all law faculties/schools undertake a curriculum reform exercise. It is interesting to note that one of the recommendations made under this headline is to increase the duration of the LLB degree from the current four years to five years.

  • Graduate attributes

The LLB standard has listed in detail the attributes expected of a law graduate. These attributes – knowledge, skills and applied competences – are a valuable and comprehensive guide for law faculties/schools to follow as they review their programmes to comply with the expectations, in respect of cultivating graduate attributes discussed in the LLB standard. The Higher Education Quality Committee (HEQC) review has made it possible to make information available that will assist faculties/schools in this important endeavour. One of the recommendations made under this headline is that clinical legal education should be compulsory for all law graduates.

  • Social sensitivity

The HEQC highlighted many instances of practices at faculties/schools that were insensitive to the social and economic realities in which they functioned. These practices – often indulged in subconsciously by staff or students – need to be addressed as a matter of priority, as the academic project of producing law graduates able to fulfil a meaningful role in society cannot thrive in an atmosphere of social insensitivity.

  • Resources

The number of law students in the system needs to be sharply reduced, so that law faculties/schools can provide substantively for the legal education required by the LLB standard, and the demands of a professional qualification at National Qualification Framework level eight. This is a recommendation that can only be attended to within the context of institutional planning.

No recommendations have been made on whether consideration should be given to a reduction in the number of law faculties/schools. It needs to be stated, though, that the gap between well-resourced and poorly resourced faculties/schools is wide. Serious attention needs to be given to means to reduce this gap in resources.

Have your say

Quality legal education is paramount to the profession and the society its serves. It is important that the programme that prepares students to be members of the profession is the right one. Send us your thoughts on the state of the current LLB programme and what should be improved in the programme. #LLBDegree

Upcoming deadlines for article submissions: 22 July, 19 August and 22 September 2019.

This article was first published in De Rebus in 2019 (July) DR 3.