Time called on Bar arguments

June 14, 1996

As the Bar Council proposes reforms in barristers' training, two legal eagles respond to Nigel Savage's criticisms of the Lord Chancellor's committee. Professor Savage is disappointed with the Lord Chancellor's Advisory Committee's first report but he advances few constructive alternatives. Far from seeking to "marginalise the influence of the profession on legal education" the report is carefully designed to foster a "new partnership" between the professional bodies and the providers of legal education so as to meet the changing needs of legal practice.

His specific criticisms can only be answered in the context of the underlying philosophy of the report. This is to replace the present sharp line between "academic" and "vocational" stages and the traditional linear model ending with qualification as a barrister or solicitor, with integrated education and training in which liberal values and transferable professional skills are learnt throughout the educational process by in-depth study of law. This involves flexibility, variety and diversity; multiple entry and exit points, an all-round preparation for a wide range of occupational destinations, intellectual rigour and common professional education.

It is this integrated approach which led to the committee's proposals for common professional legal studies. Professor Savage agrees that the "arguments in favour are powerful". But his suggestion that this can simply be left to the evolution of the Legal Practice Course and Bar Vocational Course running side by side, simply means readjusting the teaching of ever-longer lists of "skills" and perpetuates the false dichotomy between "knowledge of law" (universities) and "skills" (professional trainers). The Licentiate in Common Professional Legal Studies (which could form part of a master's degree) would be a new stage of integrated learning, involving knowledge and understanding.

The integrated approach also involves an emphasis on the outcomes of legal education rather than detailed prescription by the professional bodies of the content and arrangement of university courses. It is true that the professional bodies liberalised their requirements to a limited extent in 1990, but in 1994 they imposed a seventh compulsory subject. In the words of the report, prescription "imposes uniformity, inhibits innovation and diversification of law degrees, and contributes to overload of the undergraduate curriculum". It is difficult to understand the argument that because law schools have been forced by their universities to adopt modularisation and semesterisation, they should not be given greater freedom in relation to course content.

The proper role for professional bodies is to agree a statement of outcomes with the law schools to satisfy themselves that there are adequate learning resources and that the course meets satisfactory standards of quality assurance.

There is no suggestion in the report that the professional bodies should "diminish their influence". The committee was, however, persuaded that for universities which already face assessment by the Higher Education Funding Council panels it would be an indefensible waste of public resources to impose a second round of visits. Accordingly, it is proposed either that the professional bodies should recognise HEFC panels (with increased professional involvement) or that there should be linked assessment exercises where the same panel assesses for HEFC and professional requirements. Bodies such as the College of Law would, of course, fall only under the professional bodies' assessment.

Despite Professor Savage's strictures, it is encouraging to note that the professional bodies are giving serious and constructive consideration to the report, which provides an historic opportunity to end the guerilla sniping between university and professional providers and to achieve in partnership the integration of academic and professional legal education.

Bob Hepple

Master of Clare College and professor of law in the University of Cambridge.

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