The government announced Thursday it would hold off on plans to abolish the state-run bar exam until 2021, as controversy persists over the current law school system that was originally introduced to widen the pool of legal professionals. But the decision was scorned by both proponents and opponents of the bar exam, who said it would only extend confusion in the judiciary sector.
The Ministry of Justice said it would delay scrapping the bar exam, initially set to be abolished in 2017, citing public opinion poll results that indicate the majority of surveyed Koreans prefer keeping the state-administered exam.
In a survey of 1,000 Koreans by phone, 85.4 per cent of the respondents wanted to maintain the exam, saying it was premature to abolish it, while 23.5 per cent supported the government's original plan to scrap it by 2017.
"We made the decision as next year's bar exam would be the last chance for test-takers to enter the legal profession through the system despite the persistent controversy over whether to abolish it," Kim Joo-hyun, vice justice minister, said in a press briefing.
The state-administered bar exam ― first introduced in 1963 ― was initially set to be phased out in 2017 under the current law in a bid to stem prevalent academic elitism in the legal circle. Though the exam was open to anyone regardless of academic background, the exam passers tended to be law students from a few prestigious schools, instigating the creation of school-based cartels.
Under the administration of the late liberal President Roh Moo-hyun in 2007, the National Assembly passed an act allowing universities to set up law schools. The system aimed at drawing aspiring legal professionals equipped with varying experience sand backgrounds and increasing the number of lawyers to improve the quality of legal services through competition.
Under the current law school system, students from 25 law schools can apply for the attorney-qualifying exam at the end of their three years of study.
But the law schools, which cost students as much as 30 million won ($25,800) per year, have faced criticism for depriving economically disadvantaged students of a chance to enter the legal profession and move up the social ladder.
They have also been criticised for their ambiguous admissions process, which supporters of the bar exam view as only benefitting the privileged. A series of controversies fanned such criticism as lawmakers were accused of influence-peddling to help their children secure entry to prestigious law schools or obtain high-profile jobs.
Most recently, Rep. Shin Ki-nam of the main opposition New Politics Alliance for Democracy was suspected of pulling strings to pressure his son's law school to offer him a chance to take a lawyer qualification exam after he failed the graduation exam.
The government said it set 2021 as the deadline to allow more time for law schools to get settled into their system and secure time to review the problems.
The Justice Ministry also mapped out several alternatives ahead of the possible abolition of the bar exam in 2021, which included an option to give both law school graduates and non-law school students a chance to take an exam to qualify as legal professionals.
The move boosted hopes for those supporting the six bills aimed at retaining the bar exam pending at the National Assembly, while further stoking debate over the overlapping justifications of law schools and the bar exam.
Shortly after the government's announcement, sides both opposing and supporting the bar exam vented anger at the change in the government's stance.
"We are enraged by the Justice Ministry's decision that let down the public trust. We will respond sternly against the move. All the students from 25 schools will consider dropping out of schools," said an association of law school students in a press release. "We feel like we were cheated. We had trust in the government and pursued our dreams hoping that the law school system would finally settle down."
It also refuted the bar exam proponents' claims that law schools are taking away chances from the poor, saying "law schools offer sufficient scholarships and student loans for the socially less privileged students."
Kwon Min-sik, a student who has been preparing for the bar exam for seven years now, also questioned the government's decision.
"By delaying its decision to abolish or retain the bar exam, the government left room for the feud in the future over the bar exam. It will only become the subject of political wrangling again in the 2020 general election. We hope that the Assembly scrambles to wrap up the drawn-out discussion within the regular session," he said in a press release.
Korean lawyers' groups, for their part, also expressed disappointment at the government plan, urging the government to push for a bill stipulating the retention of the bar exam.
"The government should not taint the meaning of the bar exam and pass a law supporting its retention through the National Assembly as soon as possible," the Korea Bar Association said in a press release. "To delay making the final decision for four years is just to dodge the responsibility and turn down the majority of Korean people hoping to maintain the bar exam."