Shorter list of approved UK law schools welcomed

The decision to cut eight British law schools from the list of overseas universities recognised for admission to the Singapore Bar has been welcomed by some lawyers here.

They said that it will not just ensure the high standards of the legal profession in the country, but also help curtail the growing number of Singapore students flocking to Britain to do a law degree.

But some students already at the affected schools are worried that their degrees would now carry a question mark, making it even harder for them to find a job as a lawyer when they return.

On the recommendation of the Singapore Institute of Legal Education (Sile), the Ministry of Law on Tuesday revised the list of recognised universities. It said the University of Exeter; University of Leeds; University of Leicester; University of Liverpool; School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London; University of Manchester; University of Sheffield; and University of Southampton will be dropped from the list.

The changes, which will only affect intakes from next year, leave 11 British universities, such as the University of Birmingham and the University of Bristol. There were no changes to the 10 Australian, four American, two Canadian and two New Zealand universities on the list.

The eight universities which will be dropped had in the last three years accounted for 30 per cent of the 729 Singaporean graduates from British law schools.

But these eight schools are also among the lower-ranked law schools in Britain and their graduates are often the ones who find it harder to get jobs, said NUS law dean Simon Chesterman. "The message to parents and students is that instead of spending tens of thousands of pounds on a law education at a lower-ranked school, they could be better off pursuing other degrees locally."

Last August, Law Minister K. Shanmugam highlighted the spurt in the number of Singaporeans pursuing law overseas. In Britain, the number of Singaporean law students more than tripled from 350 in 2008 to 1,142 in 2013.

This made it harder for returning overseas graduates to get a six-month practice training contract at a law firm - a requirement for entry to the Bar. Last year, nearly 650 graduates competed for about 490 practice training contracts.

The number of local law graduates is currently about 400 each year, and this is set to increase when a third school focusing on criminal and family law opens at the SIM University.

Prof Chesterman was part of the 4th Committee on the Supply of Lawyers.

In 2013, the high-powered panel suggested that Sile review the list of overseas universities every five years - a recommendation which was accepted by the Government. The purpose, the committee said, was to ensure quality control. This is the first revision in the wake of that decision.

Law Society president Thio Shen Yi said a regular review is "important to ensure that we continue to get top-quality entrants to the Singapore Bar".

"In any review process, one can expect some universities to be added or removed. In an environment where there are far more law graduates than training contracts on offer, it is not surprising that this review contracted the existing list," he added.

Some students from the affected British law schools were disappointed with the changes.

Said Goh Jia Jie, 23, a first-year University of Liverpool law student: "Liverpool is still ranked quite highly in Britain and the world, and the education provided to the students is like that at any law school - challenging and arduous."

The Ministry of Law said it will work out provisions with the Sile to ensure that those who have secured a place in the eight schools before 2016 "are not adversely affected by the change", without giving details.

Ms Shannen Tan, a second-year law student at the University of Exeter, was able to look at the bright side. "From a long-term perspective, fewer lawyers will mean an increase in their value and worth in the future," said the 22-year-old.

Some lawyers believe that while a quality degree counts, it is not the only assurance of the makings of a good lawyer.

Said Peter Low law firm director Choo Zheng Xi: "A better way to ensure the quality of law graduates could have been to make the Bar exam more difficult to pass, or to let the market correct itself, because I know some excellent lawyers and law students from these eight universities."

Mr Josephus Tan, 35, a criminal lawyer with Fortis Law Corporation who has been recognised for his pro-bono work, graduated from the University of Southampton in 2007. "It doesn't really matter what school you come from. More importantly, it's your personal qualities, and the passion for the law that matters. I went into law to help people, not because of the prestige or the money," he said.


This article was first published on Feb 26, 2015.
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