Examining the Law Syllabus: The Core

By P. B. H. Birks; Society of Public Teachers of Law (London, England) | Go to book overview

1. A DECADE OF TURMOIL IN LEGAL EDUCATION

PETER BIRKS

THIS book has been written at a time of upheaval in legal education. The principal pressure has come from the government's policy of expanding higher education without proportionate increases in resources. Law seems peculiarly vulnerable. The numbers of law students is rising. Libraries, seminar rooms and academic lawyers are not keeping pace. The students, often investing many thousands of pounds of borrowed money, already face a shortage of jobs. The employment market is in chaos. The abolition in 1992 of the binary line, which was in many ways welcome, may unfortunately have to be seen in the context of this same expansionist policy. Semesterization of the academic year and modularization of courses are part of the same picture. Standing slightly apart, changes are imminent in the arrangements for the vocational phase. In 1993 the devolved Legal Practice Course for would-be solicitors replaces the old Law Society Final. The Bar in the meantime has determined to tighten its grip on the segregated course at the Inns of Court School of Law, where it proposes to reduce the entry and engage in a selection procedure as bizarre as it is expensive. These pressures have issued in debates and inquiries. Reviews of legal education by the Law Society and by the Lord Chancellor's Advisory Committee have been initiated. Change there certainly will be. The only question is as to its precise scope and shape.

It is possible identify five themes which run through these upheavals and which dominate most discussion of the next decade. Of these five the first two chiefly concern the academic phase, the second two the vocational stage; the last stands apart but is relevant to both. (1) Under-Qualification. Will the system continue to produce large numbers of lawyers whose academic study of the law is limited to the six core subjects? (2) Redefinition. Will the core requirements for the academic phase themselves be redefined and, if so, will they be stated more liberally or, which is all too likely, with more prescription of the detailed subjects to be studied, the time to be devoted to each, and so on? (3) Integration. Will the vocational phase be more closely integrated with the academic phase? (4) Common Education. Will there be an end to the segregation of barristers and solicitors in the vocational phase? (5) Research. Will research in law and the writing of books be progressively divided from teaching and, if so, will it be increasingly confined to a narrower range of universities? For the moment more optimistic themes, such as developing a more outward-looking European legal education, are to a certain extent pushed aside by these more humdrum matters.

The subject-matter of this book touches all five of these themes, some more immediately than others. It bears most obviously on (1) and (2) which concern the future of the study of options and the relation between options and the prescribed core. But it is also closely engaged with (3), which bears on the student's introduction to practical lawyerly skills, their definition and their relation to the academic phase. Always in the background and perhaps most important of all is (5). Law schools have a constitutional and a law-making function. It is right to be anxious about its possible impairment. Moreover, many think that research and teaching cannot be safely divided. Teaching unsupported by research is a lack-lustre business, and starvation of expensive optional courses will kill research in many fields. An impoverishment of our legal science is a real danger.

The second section of this introduction will examine more closely some of events which have created the atmosphere of radical reform and some of the changes which may happen. The first section, immediately below, discusses the role of options 'beyond the core' and the educational and practical needs which they meet.


I. Beyond the Core: The Necessity of Options

'Beyond the core' contains a hint of superfluity. Minimalists in the image of M. Poujade prick up their ears to convince themselves that that is what they hear. Are not options just that, optional? Might not students do without these dispensable excursions? And might not money be thereby safely saved? The centrality of the subjects discussed in this book gives the lie to this short-sighted minimalist opinion. They are of obvious importance, and they lead the student on to maturer and deeper understanding. Moreover, the subjects here discussed are just a tiny selection from a long and rich menu. Even if the list had been expressly confined to matters going immediately to the heart of the country's economic well-being, it would still be true, even in that cut-down field, that company law, commercial law and labour law would be no more than a handful chosen from a much larger list. International trade, investment regulation, banking, insurance,

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