Arbitrary? Anything but

March 1, 1996

Declan Cushley describes pre-admission aptitude tests for intending lawyers which we use in Northern Ireland as "arbitrary" (THES, February 16). Nothing could be further from the truth. I believe they are a model of exemplary practice which the Law Society of England and Wales working party on the issue of access to the profession would do well to study in depth.

The context is simple and familiar. Northern Ireland has a very large number of highly qualified applicants for entry to the legal profession, far too many to be realistically absorbed. Like our neighbours, we agonised over which model to adopt in order to cope. The open door models used by our colleagues in London and Dublin seem to us to be highly wasteful of resources and a recipe for ongoing instability.

The Bromley report on Professional Legal Training in Northern Ireland (HMSO, 1985), on which our system is based, argued strongly that it was essential to plan for firm student numbers for a number of reasons. Unplanned open access leads to unacceptable levels of unemployment (a waste of very expensive training) and leads to erosion of standards if too many are chasing a limited amount of work. Planning for training provision is made very difficult if it is subject to significant market fluctuations and it becomes very difficult to justify the use of public funds to support professional training where there is no planned relationship between supply and demand.

The discipline of planned numbers based on realistic manpower needs and the demands of competition offers a stable career path to applicants, a realistic level of choice to employers, sensible use of resources, comfort on quality control to the public and the profession, clear parameters for planning for the training providers and the opportunity to focus year on year on real training issues as opposed to crisis managing floods and droughts.

Once one decides to control numbers, who controls and on what basis? Access to legal education is a matter of public interest as well as professional interest. We address those two questions by recognising the commonality of interests involved and forging a partnership between them. The Council of Legal Education for Northern Ireland plans numbers on a trienniel basis. The number arrived at comes out of a process of discussion between the professional bodies, the universities, the vocational trainers and the Department for Education and Employment. Into that discussion are factored manpower planning exercises, consumer issues, as well as the combined experiences of the participants.

We offer 70 places for solicitor students and 20 for bar students, and have more than 300 applicants. There are a number of models for deciding between them. We opted for a competitive admission test in which, despite Mr Cushley's assertion to the contrary, there is no pass or fail. There is simply an order of merit based on performance in the test plus a weighted mark based on degree classification. In this way we give credit for degree performance but since it alone does not supply us with a mechanism for limiting numbers to 90, degree classifications being restricted to four or five types, we require some method of refinement.

Interviews are fraught with danger. Imposing academic examinations of the sort already well tested at undergraduate level (as is done in the Republic) strikes us as wasteful and unnecessary and of course overly weighted in favour of students who have studied Northern Irish law. So we devised a skills-based competition rooted in the practical skills lawyers require.

All applicants are therefore presented with an exam which is a completely level playing pitch. Yes, they get extra marks based on their degree but once facing the exam paper itself, it is a competition among equals. Completely anonymous, full double marking of all scripts by internal and external examiners from three jurisdictions gives students the reassurance that there are no back doors or side doors or trap doors.

The DfEE supports two-thirds of our students with full grants, thus mitigating the problem of access for the less well-off student. Unsuccessful applicants may well be disappointed, but how much worse would they feel if we had encouraged them to spend a borrowed Pounds 10,000 on fees and maintenance for a qualification which we know with certainty would carry them straight to the dole queue?

Our system is always open to scrutiny, to review and improvement. Judged against the systems operated elsewhere it has a lot to offer. Ours integrates office experience and institutional training in a way which no other jurisdiction can match - a facility directly related to our careful custodianship of the vexed question of access to the profession.

It is all the more disappointing therefore to see the word "arbitrary" used to describe and dismiss a system which is anything but.

Mary McAleese Pro vice chancellor Queen's University of Belfast

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