Old Bar Course issues leave LDC in tight spot

Graduands receive awards from the Principal Judge Justice Dr Flavian Zeija (2nd right) during the Law Development Centre (LDC) graduation ceremony on  July 29. LDC to-date maintains the monopoly in teaching the postgraduate diploma in legal practice in Uganda. photo/Jessica Sabano

What you need to know:

  • Students have accused the centre’s administration of abuse of power following reforms made at the centre recently

Students and administrators at the Law Development Centre (LDC) continue to be at loggerheads, with the former accusing the latter of abusing their power.

Created under the 1970 Law Development Centre Act to offer practical training for legal practitioners, LDC to-date maintains the monopoly in teaching the postgraduate diploma in legal practice.

Students interviewed for this story want Parliament, the Ministry of Education and Sports, the Justice and Constitutional Affairs ministry and other relevant bodies to “help liberate the institution from the shackles of monopoly”.

While some of the activities at the LDC have become public, students and other concerned individuals interviewed say little has changed. They allege that reforms brought in following a 2021 saga in which 90.1 percent of the 1,474 students failed the bar exam were superficial.

One student, who declined to be named so as to be able to speak forthrightly, told Saturday Monitor that the LDC management has “dug in against any dissent” encouraged by silence or support of institutions that should offer “the much needed checks and balances”.

Mr Frank Nigel Othembi, the LDC director, however, told Saturday Monitor that “most of the issues” raised by the students are “factually incorrect”. Besides the high failure rate, other issues highlighted include missing marks and swapped cases (uploading wrong marks on the system).

“One may think that LDC students just complain too much. There is, however, a justification for this,” another student that asked to be quoted anonymously for fear of retribution said, adding, “In any case, if the institution doesn’t give its students remedies and audience for their issues and instead tightens the rules and makes it even more difficult for students to be heard, what would you expect of the students except for public outcry and to seek government intervention?”

Verification and appeal

In the academic year 2019/2020, the rules around the bar course allowed students, regardless of the number of papers one had failed, to verify and even appeal. This was after more than 90 percent of the students failed the bar exam that academic year.

Following its “positive impact”, the LDC management “immediately and unceremoniously amended that rule for the academic year 2020/2021 to only allow students who had only one paper in any of the categories to apply for verification and appeal”. This amendment was allegedly done without the consent or knowledge of the students.

Verification at LDC means the right given to a student who is dissatisfied with the marks to either confirm or rebut such marks. Appeal on the other hand is the right given to a student after verification is complete to contest final outcomes. A student must have scored above 45 percent in the paper to either verify or appeal.

In a written response to our inquiry on the issue of the alleged amendment of rules, an affected student said: “The question is, why would LDC possibly amend a perfectly just, fair and good rule and substitute it with a harsh one? Could it be that they just want to make money from students? What could possibly be the reason LDC intentionally malices and frustrates students? Why would they deliberately amend a rule that works for students? Does it have a point to prove? Or does it deliberately want to keep students in the centre? Does it want to keep the numbers of advocates graduating and going out to practice extremely low? All of these questions linger in the back of my mind and I just can’t seem to find a single answer.”

Mr Othembi reacts

“LDC amended the rules in 2020 just like it did in 2019. It is normal for rules to be amended from time to time. There is no other academic year before 2019 that had the right to verify,” he said, adding, “It is not true that the amendment was made during the course of the academic year. The amended rules were approved by Management Committee and signed by the chairperson on October 2, 2020. The Academic Year started on October 5. All students were availed rules and signed, undertaking to be bound by rules.”

A student who was awarded 37 percent in one paper told Saturday Monitor that it was discovered that they scored 73 percent upon verification. Other verification processes revealed that some parts/sections of students’ exam papers were not marked.

“If this was the case in the academic year 2019/2020, then there is an extremely high chance that the same repeated itself in the academic year of 2020/2021,” one student told us.

Mr Othembi, however, insists that all students’ queries have been addressed and that “there is no student wrongly failed”. Those who have failed, he adds, are best advised to do supplementaries or repeat the bar course.

Tough choice

The option of supplementaries is of course off the table for students that have been discontinued. Students who end up on the discontinued list are those that have failed more than two subjects in “Category A”. They have no right of appeal and verification of marks. This category of  LDC students is expected to take the decision of the institution without challenge and redo the nine-month course or explore something else.

“How reasonable, considerate, just and fair is this for students who pay fees to a tune of Shs5m and have never seen any exam answer booklet they wrote on,” one student wondered.

In a dossier seen by Saturday Monitor, a group of students calls for “value for money”.

“While LDC doesn’t have to pass every student, they simply owe every student audience. They don’t even have to agree to all the concerns raised by the students. They just owe them a listening ear and a just and fair decision. The other question is, why would LDC make it so difficult for students to raise complaints?” the dossier reads in part.

There are students on the discontinued list, according to the dossier, whose results indicate that they failed a particular paper when they hadn’t. Upon recalculation, it was discovered that the students hadn’t even failed that paper.

“You don’t have to be a law don or the best lawyer around town to know that this is mental abuse from LDC, abuse of process and it is sickening to the core,” the dossier reads, adding, “As a government institution, society expects better from LDC. They can’t teach all these things and turn around and do the exact opposite. It defeats the very essence of respect of human rights and equality.”

Law or Low Development Centre?

Commenting on recent allegations against LDC, lawyer and activist Isaac Ssemakadde accused the institution of “incorrigible corruption and insensitivity to its clients”.

According to Rule 33(4) of the Rules governing the passing of the bar course, 2020, it’s to the effect that the Board shall have inherent powers to make such decisions or orders as may be necessary for the ends of justice in order to ensure a just and fair disposal of all matters or issues before it.

This rule gives the Board inherent powers to make such decisions necessary for the ends of justice to be achieved. Despite this rule, any attempts by the students to reach out to the Board, have fallen on deaf ears as per the dossier alleges. The students are only stuck with a few empty promises from the director who met the discontinued students after massive pressure and promised to extend the matter to the Board. Mr Othembi has not returned with a response since then.

The Board of Examiners is composed of the director and his or her deputy, the Head Bar Course (HBC) and his or her deputy, heads of subject and the academic registrar. The rules impose the power to make decisions that are necessary to achieve justice within the institution on this Board.

However, it is the director, the HBC and his or her deputies, the academic registrar among others that implement these decisions. This clearly portrays, the aggrieved students argue, a lack of separation of power. They add that it explains some of the harsh and extreme rules in the institution.

“How can the Board under Rule 33 (4) see the injustice in the fact that only students that have failed one subject in a category have the right of appeal and verification when it is implementing that same rule?” the dossier asks, adding, “These students have no remedy whatsoever. It would probably be different if it was a different body implementing and another making the decisions.

Being discontinued is one of the worst things that can happen to a student at LDC. It would be reasonable and fair for the students to be given an opportunity to understand how that decision was arrived at.”

There are now growing calls for clear separation of powers in the institution and all discontinued students to be given an opportunity to verify their marks so that they can redo the course.

“Appeals are handled by the Examination Appeals Committee, which is a Sub-Committee of the Management Committee. Any remark directed is done by an independent examiner different from the ones who marked in the first instance. Forty-two per cent of students passed outright. Others have exercised the right to verify and appeal. Processes must come to an end,” Mr Othembi concluded.

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