Archive for April 19th, 2011

Frank Zappa had a point when he said…“If you want to get laid, go to college. If you want an education, go to the library. “

I’m in the midst of a series of podcasts and blog posts about the future of legal education.

Lawcast 175: Professor Gary Slapper, Open University, on the reform of legal education

Lawcast 172: On the reform of legal education with Scott Slorach, College of Law

Lawcast 171:  Nigel Savage, CEO of The College of Law

Lawcast 170: Professor Richard Moorehead, Cardiff Law School, University of Cardiff

Two weeks ago I talked to Baroness Deech, Chair of The Bar Standards Board.  In the course of our podcast conversation, we touched on the reform of legal education being undertaken by the profession. I asked her what she thought about the agenda of the big vocational law schools and the role of the profession in the academic stage of legal education provided by the universities at degree level.

I believe  I  summarise her view fairly by saying – that while it is acceptable for the profession to lay down minimum requirements for a law degree which the profession will accept as a ‘qualifying law degree’ for the vocational stage, she did not feel it appropriate for the profession to interfere with the curriculum or teaching of law in the universities at the degree stage.

I agree with her and have some concerns at the attempts by the vocational law schools to set the agenda for the future of legal education to their world view; a world view which, is, inevitably, geared to their growth, profit and development.  I have no problem with them making profit – but I advance an argument that they should stick to their own ‘vocational / practice course’ sector or, if they wish to advance (in) to the academic stage of legal education, they do so on the same basis as our major law universities –  with the same ethos and resources and ethic of research.

Of course, with the current fiasco on university fees – with the majority of universities rushing to charge £9000 or, subtly, just below £9000 –  one could argue that all legal (and other university education) is becoming ‘commercial’.  It would not surprise me if universities start to drop ‘unprofitable courses’ (Here is one example) – and, therein, lies poverty of the spirit of our future culture, arts, history, philososophy et al? That issue, I will have to address at another time.  My focus here is on legal education and, I fear, I may be wasting yet more time by charging at a windmill on a horse with a wooden lance.

Nigel Savage, CEO of the College of Law, wrote in November of last year on his new College of Law blog:  “The problem with lawyers is that when they are confronted with a problem, their training and instincts are to look for a precedent from the past rather than to confront and embrace new ideas and thinking. To borrow a quote from Henry Ford that Richard Susskind recently used in a report for The College of Law, ‘if I asked my customers what they wanted – they would have said faster horses!’.”

He then went on to say, remarkably...“Maybe we need more radical solutions? Let’s take the undergraduate LL.B law degree. What does it really prepare students for? It is taught largely by individuals who have never practised law and who increasingly have PhDs in a wide range of areas that bear no resemblance to the practice of law.”
Nigel Savage does not take into account in this statement the fact that nearly 50% of students who read law at university do so with no intention of practising law.  They have other motives – some of which may even be for ‘liberal education’, philosophy’, interest, history and the like.  I doubt they would find a ‘fast track’, possibly ‘dumbed down’ practice oriented fois gras stuffing exercise at degree level, an attractive item to spend £9000  on at a Russell Group university – (More at BPP, College, Cardiff, etc etc – the vocational law schools?).  In any event….why would a A*A*A* candidate want to do a law degree at the ‘new universities / new colleges with degree awarding powers’ – when they can take their pick from the top 20 UK universities?

For my part, we need to ensure that the big vocational law schools are confined to their own ‘quarters’; providing vocational education geared to the basic  needs of their City, commercial and high street clientele and that they, and the professional bodies, keep to the minimum input and advice on the content of law degrees as they have for some time – with some success.

If law firms really want their trainees to be ‘fast tracked’ through law studies – and, I suspect, that many will not – because they want to ensure that their future lawyers are well educated – then, so be it.  Reap as ye sow. Anecdotal evidence is always dangerous.  I recognise that – but I do recall talking with Melvyn Hughes, then managing partner at Slaughter & May, over ten years ago when I did a report on the Legal Practice Course for the *Magic Circle* firms (which they commissioned). He told me that it was imperative that their trainees were well educated at university (and not just law graduates), had good research skills, and, if they did read law, knew some good ‘black letter law’ – because law is a cerebral activity, founded upon intellect and reasoning.  He expressed the view that the firms were best placed to teach trainees the skills of practice as their lawyers progressed through their careers.  Other experienced educators in the Magic Circle told me that the LPC is but the second rung on the ladder. One, told me the LPC was a basic foundation of ‘practice oriented’ skills and basic knowledge of practice.  The firms will do the specialist training. Despite the ‘puffery’  of the vocational law schools in their prospectuses:  I suspect, for many practitioners, the knowledge they learned on the LPC (or BPTC for barristers) is of little use to them when they actually start to practice law and the reality is that they learn on their training contracts and pupillages  – and throughout their careers – what legal practice is actually like? ?  I am advised, anecdotally, that this is a widely held view by younger lawyers and older, more experienced, lawyers.

Why, therefore, would or should we allow the vocational law schools – or the professional bodies for that matter – to interfere in the study of law at the degree or academic stage?  We could end up with a seriously diminished and damaged academic resource.  I wonder, even, how much knowledge the vocational law schools and professional bodies actually have of legal research and the teaching of law as a liberal study’? Perhaps they can tell me?

And then, of course, there are other ‘difficulties’?

The Guardian reported a few days ago…

Private university company under investigation for deceiving students

“US government probes Apollo Group, owner of BPP University College, over admissions and financial aid practices”

Carl Lygo, CEO of BPP and Principal of BPP University, has stated that BPP is UK run and UK managed.  I have absolutely no doubt that he is correct on that.  Unfortunately, his US parent company, Apollo, has had a few problems – widely reported in the press.

Did the Tory-led Coalition rush into education change here by giving BPP the honour and benefits of university status within weeks of not winning an election outright?  – and having to promulgate policy with the benefit of the Lib-Dems – a party not exactly venerated throughout our sceptred isle  for going back on the pre-election ‘Pledge’ on student fees.   The Government appears to have done so on the public sector university fees issue with the majority of universities – even some at the ‘lower end’ of the league table – wanting to join the party and charge the maximum £9000 or close to it?  Unintended consequences?  We see this fiasco played out on national television and in the press daily at the moment.  It would be amusing… if it was not so important.  We shall see, soon enough.

For the avoidance of doubt – I do think that the vocational law schools at LPC and BPTC level do a pretty good job covering their remit as prescribed by the professional bodies.  The fees are pacy (£15k+ for the BPTC in some cases) – but that is a different issue.   Students may not always agree – or, even, enjoy the experience.  There are many student discussion boards which paint a slightly different picture from the glossy law school prospectuses… inevitably?

I don’t have all the answers.  I merely put forward some direct observations – and I may well be ‘past my sell by date’.  I am happy, as always, to be advised and for contrary comment to be put.  I still have enthusiasm to learn and reflect and, even, change my mind if the evidence and argument is persuasive.


The Guardian reports…

Carl Lygo Q&A: What will higher education look like with a larger private sector?

Kim Catcheside talks to Carl Lygo principle (sic: The Grauniad really does the biz on typos)  of BPP University College and the chief exec of BPP Holdings PLC about his visions for the future

Interesting – well worth a read.

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Twitter Joke Trial update

BY David Allen Green, solicitor, New Statesman blogger and author of The Jack of Kent blog

In May 2010, Paul Chambers was convicted at Doncaster Magistrates’ Court of a single offence under section 127(1) of the Communications Act 2003 in respect of sending over a public electronic communications network a message of a menacing character.  He was fined £385 plus £15 “victim fee” and £500 prosecution costs.  He lost an appeal to Doncaster Crown Court in November 2010.

This “Twitter Joke Trial” case is now infamous.  The supposedly menacing message was in fact an exasperated jest.  Paul did not want an airport to be menaced.  He certainly did not want it closed, as he wanted to fly from there so as to stay with a new girlfriend.  He did not send the communication to the airport or use its formal Twitter name.  He sent it only to those of his few hundred followers who happened to have been reading his tweets at the time.  He didn’t give it another thought until, one fine day, a number of Doncaster police attended his workplace to arrest him.

The next step in the case is to appeal to the High Court using the rare procedure known as “appeal by case stated”.  This is essentially an appeal on points of law.  Paul’s appeal will be on the basis that the Magistrates’ and Crown Courts misdirected themselves as to the correct tests for “actus reus” (the culpable facts) and “mens rea” (the guilty intention) as well as misapplying Article 10 of the European Convention of Human Rights.  The High Court appeal should be heard later this year.  Thanks to the Twitter Joke Trial Fund  and a fund-raising and celebrity-studded concert held on Friday, Paul is now in a good position for this appeal. Ben Emmerson QC and other barristers have been able to put together a strong 32 page “skeleton argument” – a benefit which most criminal appellants do not have, let alone one who has not incurred a custodial sentence.

Why does all this matter?  This case is an outrage because it shows the casual way the British state can impose criminal liability (and Paul has now lost two jobs because of his conviction and may never be able to work as an accountant again); because it shows that the law enforcement agencies do not understand social media and also do not have senses of humour or of proportion; and because it shows that a good and decent person can, with the help of others, make a stand and say to those who wish to use the coercive power of law that such an abuse of  legal power is wrong.  Paul, like the libel defendant Simon Singh,  is a person caught up in the absurdity of how the English legal system deals with what should be a matter of simple free expression.  And like Simon he intends to use the English legal system to put things right, when previously the system has got things horribly wrong.



David Allen Green has now posted on his own blog… this important update…

Twitter Joke Trial: the case stated by Doncaster Crown Court

We shall, I hope, discuss events briefly in our Without Prejudice podcast this week.

Useful links:

Concert write-up with audio interviews

Comedian Stephen Fry has said he is “prepared to go to prison” over the “Twitter joke” trial.

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