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Peart Commission wants major changes in legal education

11 Dec 2018 / Education Print

Peart Commission supports changes in legal education

Section 34 of the Legal Services Regulation Act 2015 mandates the Legal Services Regulatory Authority (LSRA) to review existing professional legal education and, by 1 October 2018, to report to the Minister for Justice with recommendations (among other things) on standards and training, course scope and content, including the teaching methodology of legal education, legal ethics, negotiation, alternative dispute resolution and advocacy.

Past reviews led to significant developments, including the professional and advanced courses in 1978.

The 1998 review brought the Education Centre. The last review in 2007 marked the enhancement and skills delivery on the Professional Practice Course 1, and the complete redesign of the Professional Practice Course 2.

So a further substantive review was timely.

Experts

Anticipating the LSRA consultation, the Law Society commissioned an external review of solicitor education in Ireland, by Prof Jane Ching, Jenny Crewe and Prof Paul Maharg, all renowned experts in the field of legal education.

The Maharg Report, presented to Council in January 2018, recognised the high standards of professional legal education in the Law School, finding structures of teaching well organised and designed for our PPC courses, and current teaching aligned to assessment practices.

Some aspects of how the Law School provides professional education to trainees, including using certain digital technologies, are ahead of the field in legal services education. Continuing professional development (CPD), in the form of Diplomas and MOOCs, leads the field.

Maharg recommended:

  • Improving communication with the profession to increase the transparency of the Law Society’s activities in education,
  • Increasing the educational resource base of the Law Society, and
  • Setting benchmarking standards for tutor training.

Following the Maharg Report and in response to the LRSA consultation, the Law Society established the Future of Solicitor Education Review Group, chaired by Mr Justice Michael Peart (known as the Peart Commission) to examine the issues set out in section 34(3) of the Legal Services Regulation Act.

It has made 30 recommendations – all of which have been approved by the Council for implementation.

Diversity

We are, in fact, a pretty good profession as far as diversity goes. Since 2015, women have outnumbered men. Between 10% and 15% of each new PPC has students who are over the age of 30.

We have had an Access Programme since 2000 that waives fees and provides maintenance payments and ongoing assistance to suitably qualified candidates from socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds. We operate a bursary fund to help with fees, and there is a hardship fund available to trainees.

Almost 100 solicitors have qualified through the Access Programme, and 138 trainees are currently in the process of qualifying. That said, there is a lot more that can be done, and the Access Programme will be advertised more widely.

We will expand the outreach programme to explain the solicitor’s role, and how to qualify, to those still at school, to university students and all involved in education, with more visits to law firms to ensure the welfare of trainees.

The Preliminary Examination is prescribed by statute. So it must remain, with wider exemptions being allowed. Legal executives with five years’ experience, and accountants who have completed degree-level education programmes, but may not be formal graduates, will be able sit the FE1 without having to pass the Preliminary.

Divergent views

The FE1 will be retained. This caused a great deal of discussion; there are divergent views in the profession.

However, 19 institutions in Ireland offer law degrees of varying standards and types, aside altogether from students who have not studied law at all. Students must attain the necessary standard to become a trainee, and the FE1 is the best manner of ensuring that.

Further exemptions will be considered, and undergraduate law students may sit the FE1 during the third year of university.

One complaint about the FE1 was that it is an unnecessary waste of an entire academic year after university.

Standard

Interestingly, England and Wales are, by 2021, introducing an examination similar to the FE1. Their experience has been that it is necessary to establish a qualifying standard for admission to train as a solicitor.

Practical in-office experience is invaluable for trainee solicitors. However, a number of changes will be made to the training contract.

First, the Law Society will set up an online resource to help those seeking a training contract – details of contracts offered by firms of all sizes will be gathered and published here, and it is hoped that this will become the preferred route for trainees to obtain information on contracts.

New models

New models of training contracts will be introduced. Work has begun to report on the possibilities – including allowing firm-sharing trainees to gain experience in all areas of practice and to assist smaller firms to afford to take on a trainee.

More in-house training contracts will be encouraged. There is scope for many more such contracts.

A part-time PPC will be offered and will include block release, evening, weekend and possibly holiday attendance.

This will assist trainees with funding difficulties to work full-time while training and will help smaller practices that rely on having their trainees in the office to operate more efficiently and encourage them to take on a trainee.

The obligatory discrete blocks of practice will be removed from in-office training. Training will be allowed in any three areas of legal practice.

Online training record

An online office training record will monitor training to confirm the trainee is gaining the requisite experience.

The PPC1 and PPC2 ‘sandwich’ will be discontinued, and content from those two courses will be covered in a longer, single PPC, possibly lasting up to eight months.

We were privileged to have a number of educationalists on the review group, who introduced us to ‘Project 21’.

Since the early 1980s, government, academic, non-profit and corporate entities worldwide have been researching the personal and academic skills that are required for the next generation.

Knowledge

Technology now means that content and knowledge – which have formed the basis of education – are easily accessible.

While literacy and numeracy are still relevant and essential, they are not enough to deal with the technological and socio-economic changes that are happening. Education systems are changing to provide students with a range of skills to cope.

These include competences such as teamwork and collaboration, critical thinking, and problem solving – referred to as ‘21st century skills’. Most of the current content taught on the PPC will be developed to include 21st century skills.

Trainees must learn the basics – such as what is required to form a contract, how to issue court proceedings, or close a sale of property – before they can embark on specialist topics.

Specialist

Four further specialist legal/practice-related modules on the course may be chosen by students, taken either with the Law Society or with other accredited educators. This is quite a departure. It arose from some firms wanting trainees to learn extremely specialised topics, for example, aircraft financing.

Some courses will be offered in collaboration with other professional bodies and educators. Trainees will also be free to attend the Law Society’s courses. These modules can be taken immediately after the PPC or over the two years of the training contract.

A dedicated Centre of Innovation, Education and Learning will be established, bringing together learning and development, technology, innovation and psychological services. An educational technologist and a professional educator will be appointed.

Evaluated

The centre will help design the new PPC and diploma, certificate and CPD courses, and ensure they are constantly reviewed. It will regularly engage with all involved in the profession, Law Society staff, training firms, and trainees to ensure courses are evaluated and views are canvassed.

It will train the part-time faculty to make us better teachers and tutors and will oversee the education function to make sure that trainees are the best that they can be.

Solicitors of course, need to be ‘the best’ as well. Work will continue to improve the diploma, certificate and CPD courses and to assist solicitors to build towards an LLM or an MSc.

Tutorial rooms

Finally, much work is needed in the Law School buildings, with plans for 10-15 new tutorial rooms and other required premises in the near future.

So big changes are ahead – welcome to the 21st century and beyond!

Carol Plunkett
Carol Plunkett is chair of the Law Society education committee