Law degrees to be cross-examined

University law deans have approached the Council on Higher Education (CHE) to probe the relevance and adequacy of the LLB degree.

The investigation into the qualification is in response to ongoing concerns by top legal minds about the declining quality of law graduates. Legal experts have proposed the reintroduction of a five-year LLB degree at all law faculties. Some institutions offer a four-year qualification.

Cheryl de la Rey, CEO of the CHE, said the council was about to embark on a research project to look at the LLB, following two meetings with the Law Deans Association.
She said the project was at the request of the association.

The CHE will investigate whether the structure of the degree, for instance a five-year versus a four-year qualification, is adequate to the demands of the profession, De la Rey said. The adequacy of the foundational skills the degree provides would also be investigated.

Chairperson of the Law Deans Association Professor Francois Venter said although the investigation will not necessarily change current practice—which provides for a four-year LLB qualification—it will cast more light on the issue following complaints from the industry.

Leading the debate is the Law Society of South Africa. The society’s Nick Swart said the reintroduction of the five-year LLB programme is not a decision to be made overnight. But universities need to take full advantage of the Attorney’s Fidelity Fund, which provides for the enhancement of law programmes, he said. Some universities use the fund to conduct literacy and numeracy projects for students and to run tutor programmes.

Other law experts believe a consequence of the shorter training has been that students are focusing on “black-letter law ”—the basic elements of law. This means that students do not have time to do subjects that could provide them with more insight into the society in which they will practice.

University of Pretoria law dean Professor Christof Heyns said it was imperative for graduates to have necessary literacy and numeracy skills and that currently some are struggling. He suggested that the best solution is for students to enrol for a BA or BCom degree before the LLB. This would mean students have to do three years of undergraduate studying and add extra two years for LLB.

“Our faculty is inundated with comments from the industry about the quality of graduates. But it should be noted that these are isolated because some students are performing very well,” Heyns said. He added that most of the inadequacies stem from a poor school system.

In 1998, the Department of Justice allowed for a shortening of the LLB programme from five to four years to make it more accessible to previously disadvantaged students. Most universities heeded this by adopting the four-year programme.

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