Inside politics of keeping practice of law exclusive

Thursday August 05 2021
sr01pix

Graduates celebrate after graduating at the Law Development Centre (LDC) in Kampala about five years ago. LDC registers a high failure rate every year. PHOTO/FILE

By DICTA ASIIMWE

At the beginning of June, Uganda’s Law Development Centre (LDC) released a graduation list, where only less than 10 per cent of the students from the 2019/2020 cohort were fit to be called to the bar.

The rest had either failed some or all of their exams, which prompted a public outcry questioning how an institution doing a good teaching job could fail that many students.

In the aftermath of those results, some LDC students submitted two petitions contesting the handling of their exams.

One petition was sent to the National Council for Higher Education (NCHE), which supervises tertiary education in Uganda. The other went to the Law Council, an institution charged with regulating legal aid and the legal profession in Uganda.

In the two petitions, the students complained about failure to release results as required by LDC’s rules for passing the bar course. Among other things, the rules require publication of results with a detailed breakdown of performance in the different terms, subjects and type of exams, something that LDC failed to do for the 2019/2020 cohort.

In response, NCHE has since written to LDC for explanation on the massive failure of students and why examination and result sharing rules were not complied with. The Law Council on the other hand has said it could only acknowledge the petition, with further action hamstrung by the Covid-induced lockdown.  

Advertisement

“I have not been able to look at the petition because I haven’t been in office,” says Justice Martin Stephen Egonda-Ntende, the chairperson of the Council.

Mr Egonda-Ntende, however, adds that they had previously responded to an earlier public outcry after only145 out of 1,474 LDC students passed the bar exam.

In defence
Information from other members of the Law Council suggests, however, that the institution that regulates the legal profession found LDC’s handling of the 2019/2020 students satisfactory.   

Prof Fredrick Ssempebwa, a member of the Council, says the students are essentially building a mountain out of a molehill, as the minister of Education had, alongside the NCHE, made similar inquiries and found nothing wayward.

On the high failure rate, Prof Ssempabwa says the Covid-19 pandemic, which meant students were studying online instead of at school, had complicated a situation already affected by the scrapping of pre-entry exams.

“This is the first performance registered by LDC since we scrapped pre-entry exams,” he says.  
Pre-entry have been highlighted by many of the already practicing lawyers, as a way to ensure LDC sieves out those who shouldn’t be studying law.

“Too many people who have no time to study law are enrolling for the course. Such people are unlikely to pass the bar course the first time,” he says.

A decade ago, the Law Council’s committee on legal education and training introduced pre-entry exams following an outcry over a high failure rate of students at LDC.

While some analysts argued at the time that the high failure rate was on account of LDC holding a monopoly, as it is the only path through which one can become an advocate, the Law Council argued that the liberalisation of education which resulted in many universities offering the bachelor of laws had compromised quality.

These exams were, however, scrapped in 2019, after the Law Council succumbed to pressure from mostly Parliament. Parliament voted in 2018 to scrap the exams amid opposition of the Uganda Law Society and then Justice Minister Maj Gen Kahinda Otafiire.   

Gen Otafiire later joined Parliament in opposing pre-entry exams, when he argued that if the quality of students coming out of university was below par, it was better for LDC to increase duration of their course to two years, instead of allowing people to study four years of law and be denied a practicing certificate.

Parliament agreed with the minister’s assessment, arguing then that the pre-entry exams did not guarantee quality. Mr Jacob Oboth-Oboth (West Budama), who was then chairperson of the Parliament’s committee, says students who go through LDC will have gone through several exams and special ones are unnecessary. 

He adds that private lawyers were using pre-entry exams to siphon money from students, as there is no known syllabus upon which the arrangement was based.

Most of the older lawyers in Uganda, including those that never sat for pre-entry exams opposed Parliament’s move, arguing that personal gain was motivating politicians to push for revision of the rules.

Not for everybody
According to Prof Ssempebwa, business people, politicians and too many other people from other professions are now trying to change careers by studying law.

“It is like they have all been told that the law is the place to get rich,” he adds.
The belief that too many people shouldn’t be studying law is held by several other practicing lawyers, including, Mr Frank Nigel Othembi, the LDC director. In an interview with NTV-Uganda recently, Mr Othembi said too many people were being misguided into studying law.

“Being the most argumentative person in your family doesn’t mean you are the right person to study law,” he said.

The students in the petition, however, say their contention with LDC isn’t about failing. They argue instead that LDC’s failure to follow its own examination rules creates room to doubt the results that were released in June.

The students cite cases where results released by LDC for the 2019/2020 academic year didn’t quite make sense.

The cases highlighted as bizarre include the one of Abdul Aziz Wamakuyu who died in a road accident and was buried on March 11, 2021 before he sat for his final LDC exams. In their petition, the students point out how LDC included Wamakuyu on the list of those that had sat for exams, although he was reported to have failed some.

Asked about these discrepancies, Mr Othembi said he could not comment for fear of prejudicing the students’ petition with the Law Council.

“I will be glad to discuss this with you further after the Law Council has a made determination of the matter,” says Mr Othembi, who also adds that results from LDC are in good order.

“Suffice it to say at this point that LDC stands by the integrity of its examination processes and officially released results,” he adds.

Prof Ssempebwa on the other hand says the anomalies at LDC’s can partly be blamed on the Covid-19 pandemic, which meant teachers did not have enough time to properly compile examination results before graduation.

Prof Sssempebwa adds the disruptions to education caused by Covid-19, were not just a Ugandan problem, but could be found in other countries, including the schools for the bar course in Nigeria and Ghana.

The Ghana, Nigeria experience
According to him, students for the bar course in Nigeria and Ghana failed like it was the case in Uganda. In Nigeria, results from their council of legal education show that 23 per cent of students that sat for the bar exam in March 2021 failed. In total, 5,770 attempted to study for the bar and 75 per cent were passed and graduated in July 2021.

The Ghana school of Law on the other hand registered a significantly higher failure rate. Three quarters of the students admitted to study for the bar were judged to have failed.

Just like in Uganda, pre-entry exams to the bar course in Ghana are a political issue, and even featured in the 2020 elections that returned Nana Akufo-Addo to the presidency. The opposition in Ghana led by former President John Mahama had promised to liberalise Ghana’s bar course teaching, arguing that it was against their constitution for just one institution to have monopoly in education.

In Uganda, similar arguments around self-interest of advocates have been made.  Mr Oboth Oboth, who is also a lawyer, says those calling for pre-entry exams in the face of high failure rates at LDC are doing so out of self-interest.

“Look at the LDC lecturers, where did they learn teaching law from? Did they do pre-entry first? One fact is clear, it is self-preservation,” he says.

Failure rate in other countries
In Nigeria, results from their council of legal education show that 23 per cent of students that sat for the bar exam in March 2021 failed. In total, 5,770 attempted to study for the bar and 75 per cent were passed and graduated in July 2021.

The Ghana school of Law on the other hand registered a significantly higher failure rate.      

Three quarters of the students admitted to study for the bar failed. In total the Ghana School of Law had admitted 1,047 for the 2020 academic year, which was a record number of students. A year earlier, the Ghana School of Law had only admitted 128 students, the only ones to have reportedly passed pre-entry exams.

Advertisement