Developing Legal Education in the Commonwealth: Some Current Issues

AuthorCommonwealth Secretariat

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  1. In his inaugural address, the then President of the Commonwealth Legal Education Association (The Association) Professor N.R. Menon of the National Law School of India University drew attention to the need to make legal education in the Commonwealth socially relevant and professionally useful and for law schools and vocational training providers to prepare themselves for the demands of the profession in the context of the information revolution and other global challenges. He also drew attention to the need for a fresh look at law curricula and teaching methods and to support continuing legal education and distance learning programmes.

  2. Against this background, this paper will:

* provide an overview of legal education in the Commonwealth;

* consider how the Commonwealth might better support the delivery of high-quality legal education that meets the needs of all member states and supports the basic principles of the Commonwealth;

* consider how the Commonwealth might contribute to encouraging research and publishing, especially on legal issues of particular importance to Commonwealth member states;

* consider ways in which Commonwealth law schools and law students might assist law ministries on law reform issues and in the provision of legal services.

Legal education in the commonwealth: the current position
  1. The majority of Commonwealth member states have established law programmes so that today there are in excess of 400 law schools and other institutions providing legal education in the Commonwealth.1 The continued popularity of legal studies means that there are thousands of students studying law at any one time.

  2. The variety of such programmes indicates the range of needs that must be addressed. These include:

* undergraduate law programmes;

* postgraduate law programmes;

* inter-disciplinary programmes (such as a Law and Business Studies joint degree);

* non-law programmes that require students to take some law courses (e.g. accountancy courses);

* professional legal training programmes;

* continuing legal education programmes for legal practitioners;

* specialist law training programmes for public officials; and

* judicial studies.

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Current constraints on the provision of legal education
  1. Law schools in the Commonwealth vary considerably in resources, staffing and facilities. Even so, most are faced with at least some of the following constraints:

* cost of legal education;

* limited numbers of places available to study law (this may apply at undergraduate and/or professional legal training levels);

* resource constraints;

* staffing constraints;

* teacher retention;

* lack of local legal materials;

* lack of access to electronic resources; and

* outdated law curricula.

Developing strategies for strengthening legal education
  1. When considering the development of strategies to strengthen legal education, there are also several other issues to consider.

* Access to electronic resources is still limited in many law schools, thus the use of more "traditional" teaching methods must also be explored.

* Significant numbers of law graduates do not enter the legal profession. How can (or should) law programmes cater for such persons?

* Should/can law programmes be developed to address those who may wish to enter the government legal service? (e.g. by providing training in areas that directly address the needs of government legal advisors, such as international criminal matters).

A Exploring additional methods for delivering high quality legal education

7. Given the above, Law Ministers may wish to consider alternative methods for delivering high quality legal education. These include:

* Examining alternatives to full-time law programmes: for example, the use of evening and part-time law courses as well as reducing the length of law programmes through extending the number of teaching weeks in a year.

* Development of distance learning programmes: there are a number of possibilities, including:

* Supported open learning programmes: for example, the Open University Centre for Law (UK) offers a full LLB degree through "supported open learning": i.e. students study in their own time using (hard copy) course materials, working on course activities and writing tutor-marked assignments. They are supported by a tutor based in their area who holds regular face-to-face tutorials with students and regionally-based student services staff as well as enjoying access to an on-line law library. The popularity of such a programme is illustrated by the fact that the OU law degree is now the largest taught law undergraduate programme in the UK. The development of similar law programmes is also being examined in India amongst other countries.

* Electronic/paperless courses: such courses are resource intensive in that computer access and broadband connection is essential, but if these resources are to hand, the law teachers doPage 57 not even have to be in the same country. Internet video links allow for an interactive session across thousands of kilometres.

* Offering short intensive courses: this approach offers the prospect of legal academics and practitioners from other institutions (not necessarily located in that jurisdiction) providing short courses at alternative law schools. Running intensives in different Commonwealth countries can help forge closer links between academics, and provide students with access to different courses and exposure to different styles and experiences in teaching and research.

This already happens in, for example, Australia. Here lecturers run courses in other law schools, because it is not feasible (for a number of reasons, only one of which is financial) for a particular law school to run that course. The resulting courses are usually intensives - run over a week or two weeks, with assessment some time later.

Such courses could also be provided as part of continuing legal education for members of the legal profession and judges/magistrates.

B Establishing new law schools and expanding access to law studies
  1. An additional issue is the development of new law schools. At present, there are several Commonwealth jurisdictions that have no law school: for example, The Gambia.

  2. Further the issue of access to law studies for females and members of minority groups might also be considered, as well as possible ways of dealing with any disadvantages. For example, the Akitsiraq Law School (Canadian Arctic) offers an LLB degree for Inuit students only, in collaboration with the University of Victoria.

C Ensuring adequate access to legal information
  1. Making appropriate legal resources available to legal educators remains a priority. Two aspects are particularly relevant:

* Firstly, access to electronic legal resources. Today a wealth of legal materials is available free of charge on the Internet, for example, through the World Legal Information Institute (WorldLII) and related web sites...

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