A long-awaited reform of legal education
TO On the evening of November 12, 1993, a bill was introduced in the Singapore Parliament to redefine the term âqualified personsâ for the purposes of admission to the Singapore Bar.
One of the recommendations of the Minister of Justice was to end the practice of allowing anyone who had been admitted to the English Bar from an automatic qualification to begin their practical legal training and to be admitted later. at the Singapore Bar, marking a break with a tradition that had lasted for over a century in the former Crown Colony of the British Empire.
Throughout what seemed like a run-of-the-mill Minister of Justice speech, however, one snippet stood out quite unusually in the obscure part of Hansard. It is said: “In the longer term, the intention of the government is to work towards the establishment of a common competition for all law graduates wishing to practice, regardless of where they are from. graduates. Such a program can be managed by the Legal Education Council â.
The speech unanimously signaled the Singapore government’s commitment to create a unified professional training for all law graduates who intend to practice law in Singapore.
Today, the âcompetition common to all law graduatesâ mentioned in the Minister of Justice’s speech has since been concluded and is currently known as Part B of the Singapore Bar Exams.
All law graduates, whether graduating from the National University of Singapore or a foreign university, must pass the Part B exam before they can begin their legal education in Singapore.
On the other hand, the situation on the other side of the road is less promising. For those who are not familiar, there are usually three popular professional streams in which law graduates can be admitted to the Malaysian bar. The chosen route depends mainly on where a law graduate obtained his law degree:
1. For graduates of specified universities in UK, Australia or New Zealand, they are required to complete a course known as Certificate in Legal Practice;
2. For graduates of UK universities, they can take a course leading to the bar exams in England and Wales and be admitted to the English bar as an alternative to the Certificate in Legal Practice; and
3. For graduates of specified local universities, no further qualifications are required before starting legal training.
Of these, the Certificate in Legal Practice has been the subject of criticism from many law degree holders (whether practicing lawyers, law academics or current exam candidates).
There is a litany of grievances related to this course, many of which are heart-wrenching experiences of applicants who consistently failed it despite their best efforts. This course is fully assessed through written exams across nine subjects covering substantive law and Malaysian procedural law, which feels like a delicate combination of a conversion course and professional studies relating to court proceedings in civil proceedings. and criminal and professional conduct rules in one package, although conventional practice in other common law jurisdictions, such as Hong Kong, Singapore, and England, is to assess them in two separate courses and exams. .
Many of my college peers have shared their experiences in preparing for exams for this course, and one notable feature has been consistent among them all: there is an impressive, if not downright illogical, emphasis on rote learning. There is no ‘practical’ aspect to this course, in the sense that candidates are not assessed for their advocacy and conference skills in a mock courtroom or on the premises of a law firm. ‘lawyers.
Bar exams in England, on the other hand, represent a stark contrast in terms of how candidates are assessed. The bar exam course contains a blend of hands-on training in advocacy and conferencing skills, in which candidates are assessed by performance in a simulated courtroom environment and that of a law firm, and knowledge-based modules relating to judicial and ethical procedures that students have yet to study largely through the conventional rote learning process and are assessed through written exams and multiple-choice questions.
At first glance, bar exams in England appear to be an objectively better method of assessing the competence of law graduates before they begin their practical legal training against the Certificate in Legal Practice, but further analysis indicates that Exams may no longer be suitable for law graduates who intend to practice in Malaysia, for two reasons.
First, the legal profession in England maintains a strict distinction between “barristers” and “solicitors”, unlike a merged legal profession which exists in Malaysia.
In such a situation, those who have been admitted to the English Bar would be familiar with the role and specific trades of a barrister and not that of a notary, despite the existence of numerous wardship positions in Malaysia which strongly emphasize the emphasis (if not exclusively focuses on) the practice of lawyers.
Transactional cession and corporate practice are the most obvious examples; a law graduate who passed the bar exams and is admitted to the English bar would not have received any relevant training in these practice areas throughout the course leading to the bar exams.
Second, the relevance of the England bar exams program to Malaysia has declined dramatically over the past decades.
Legal proceedings and rules of conduct in England and Malaysia have diverged considerably since we gained independence, so much so that the current bar exam schedule looks less and less like the corresponding rules in Malaysia (notably, our Rules of Court 2012 is based on the old Rules of the Supreme Court of 1965 in England, the latter having been almost entirely replaced following a law reform initiative in 1998).
The implications of this are that law graduates who are admitted to the English Bar will have little (if any) knowledge of the relevant rules in Malaysia, the gap of which can only be filled by studying on their own or by gaining work experience. through internships or practical internships in law.
For law graduates from local universities, the professional aspect of legal training is incorporated into the final year of their university studies, thereby eliminating the need to complete a separate postgraduate course before starting their practical legal training.
The exact differences between the pathways identified above are beyond the scope of this article, but the points above are sufficient to demonstrate that they are very distinct from each other, both in terms of subjects that law graduates are required to study (or practice) and how they are assessed before starting their practical legal training in Malaysia.
It is abnormal that we have retained the practice of recognizing multiple pathways, with varied curricula, assessment methods, and exposure to legal proceedings and ethical standards in Malaysia, with the aim of qualifying as a lawyer in Malaysia. Malaysia.
By the very nature of this system, the quality of new entrants to the legal profession is invariably disparate along the path taken by any law graduate (not in the sense that some are “better trained” than others, but in very different skills and knowledge that each law graduate will obtain depending on the path they choose).
If the goal that one seeks to achieve is that all law graduates have a uniform level of competence, skills and knowledge of Malaysian legal procedures and professional ethics before they can be qualified as lawyers, then the The current situation is in line with this very objective.
Various factions of the profession (including the Bar Council) have called for the creation of a âcommon bar courseâ or âcommon bar examâ, as a âsingle entry pointâ into the legal profession in Malaysia.
What is worrying, however, is that the idea of ââa common competition for all law graduates has come closer to being realized today as it was almost 20 years ago. At various times over the past decade, the Bar Council and the Malaysian government had claimed to ‘push for’ the implementation of such a course and exam, but no timeline for the implementation of this plan. had never been conclusively announced.
I remembered a time when I discussed this with a lawyer in the most casual manner over a dinner party (a truly exceptional choice of conversation topics), and he pointed out that the reason is that the stakeholders (which include the Bar Council, the Attorney General Chambers and various law faculties of several local universities) did not agree to find a solution, sometimes for reasons related to the protection of their respective personal interests.
If this were true, it would be simply outrageous and unacceptable, as law graduates and members of the public risk suffering from the selfishness of a few because they refuse to understand the gravity and criticality of the situation. current.
Until a common exam is put in place for all law graduates who intend to practice law in Malaysia, no one can realistically counter the claim that the existing system is unfair, whether such a claim is in fact real or simply perceived to be as such.
On a larger scale, this has a negative implication for the rule of law in Malaysia as well, as members of the public witness the disparity between current pathways to becoming a lawyer and wonder if any given path produces ‘better lawyers’. than the others. . Obviously, such a result does not bode well for preserving the reputation of the legal profession.
It goes without saying that a uniform qualification is the most, if not the only, viable solution to ensure the fair treatment of candidates who wish to enter a certain profession and to instill in them a uniform standard of competence, skills and knowledge to be employed. this end. .
Much to our dismay, this has not been the case for the legal profession in Malaysia, despite calls for reform from those directly affected by it and those who came long before us.
I hope, however, that as the pressures for legal education reform in Malaysia become more cohesive and vocal, this article will also help build momentum for long overdue change.
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