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Nationwide review of LLB degree under way

LEAD director Nic Swart discussing the challenges facing legal education. 15.01.2010. Cameraperson: Nicholas Boyd. Editing: Darlene Creamer

15th January 2010

By: Carla Thomaz

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The Law Society of South Africa’s Legal Education and Development (LEAD) division, the deans of law schools and faculties and other stakeholders are participating in a nationwide review of the Bachelor of Laws (LLB) degree curriculum to make recommendations for upgrading the curriculum. This is in response to ongoing concerns about the declining quality of law graduates.

“For the last four years, we have been in discussion with government and universities about reviewing the LLB degree. The process, which was started by the Council for Higher Education, has now entered into its first discussions with the profession,” says LEAD director Nic Swart.

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Several legal experts have proposed the reintroduction of a five-year LLB degree at all law faculties. The LLB degree was shortened from five years to four years, by the Department of Justice, in 1998, to make it more accessible to previously disadvantaged students.

Some experts believe a con-sequence of the four-year degree has been that students are focusing only on the basic elements of law. This, Swart explains, means that students do not have time to do subjects that could provide them with more insight into the society in which they will practise. Further, he adds, there is not enough consultation between universities on the courses that are relevant to a law practice, resulting in one faculty offering 90 courses and another only 24 courses, making some degrees less relevant for a practice.

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The wide choice of subjects offers graduates some insight into a number of subjects, he says. “Our proposal is to rather limit the number of subjects being offered and focus on those that are more important.”

Having little knowledge of a number of subjects results in graduates experiencing difficulties in accessing new fields, says Swart. He adds that this is exacerbated by concerns about the level of teaching provided to students.

“A lack of knowledge and an inadequate level of teaching poses a risk to the client and to the profession. We have determined what the minimum requirements should be for a student in certain areas, and our view is that the LLB degree should satisfy these minimum requirement levels,” he says.

An investigation will be carried out to determine if the structure of the degree is ade-quate for the demands of the profession, as well as the ade-quacy of the foundational skills the degree provides.

“The review needs to get to grips not only with the lack of numeracy skills, but also with the apparent general lack of functional literacy. Many students are graduating without being able to draw up basic legal documents,” Swart says.

The LEAD has expressed concern about the declining educational standards of entrants to the profession. Not only is numeracy a significant problem, but the apparent general lack of functional literacy also has to be improved, he says. Swart explains that many law students, who achieve excellent results during their studies, cannot write an essay, yet writing is an essential professional skill in almost every branch of legal practice.

Swart believes that most of the inadequacies are a result of a poor schooling system, the results of which need to be dealt with at tertiary and post- graduate institutions, as it is imperative for graduates to have the necessary literacy and numeracy skills.

“Universities need to take full advantage of grants offered by the Attorneys Fidelity Fund, which contributes to the enhancement of law programmes,” he says.

Some universities use the funds to conduct literacy, numeracy and tutor programmes for students, and several training programmes have already been developed at law faculties to deal with the deficiency in numeracy skills. The LEAD, in turn, continues to look for ways to bridge this gap by creating courses for young lawyers at a postgraduate and postadmission level.

“We would like to improve the standards of practice of post-graduates further, and the next initiative we are considering is to introduce mandatory continuing professional development for attorneys,” he says.

Law is changing at a fast pace, explains Swart, particularly as we live in a new dispensation in South Africa and the country is part of the global market.

“There are a number of changes in terms of global trade per- spectives and it is important for attorneys to be updated in their specialised area of the law, but also to be trained in new areas of practice,” concludes Swart.

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