Law quality under scrutiny

September 13, 2002

Law academics fear that the Law Society and the Bar Council will introduce their own quality-assurance systems and prescribe course content for law degrees in an attempt to shore up standards.

They also fear that plans to set resourcing guidelines will threaten the future of small departments.

The two bodies responsible for setting standards on qualifying law degrees began a consultation exercise on standards and content in July. The consultation says: "There are worries about quality and standards and a perception that some law-degree programmes are of an inadequate standard to equip students to progress onto a professional career in law."

It points to "deficiencies of legal knowledge, of understanding of basic legal principles within relevant commercial, business and social contexts".

Concerns are raised about standards affecting access. "We cannot condone a situation where some students may be arbitrarily excluded from opportunities to progress within the legal profession on the grounds of the institution they attended."

The consultation is aimed at universities, law departments and members of the professional bodies. It was prompted in part by the Quality Assurance Agency's decision to abandon periodic subject review. It says that the Law Society and the Bar Council hope to be able to work through the new system of institutional audit set up by the QAA, but keeps the option of separate monitoring and validation procedures open.

Gwynneth Pitt of Kingston University, chair of the Committee of Heads of University Law Schools, said: "Greater course prescription would stifle creativity and diversity and raise questions about university autonomy."

Debbie Lockton, one of only four QAA institutional auditors from the field of law, said: "The problem for law departments is that for many, fewer than half of their students will go on to become solicitors and barristers. If the courses become too prescriptive, universities will lose these people."

Professor Pitt said separate quality-assurance mechanisms would be bureaucratic and costly. She said that special pleading on resources was unlikely to work.

But Nigel Savage, chief executive of the College of Law, said: "If the November white paper paves the way for differential fees, the temptation for universities to treat law students as cash cows will be enormous. Some protection against providing law on the cheap will be important."

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