I came across an article by noted young legal academic, Dr. Ridwanul Hoque, entitled “Room for Improvement“, that very neatly summarises the ailments that plague Bangladesh’s system of Legal Education.
I found one quotation to be particularly apt:
“Law schools have to do more than merely award degrees and, at best, produce legal plumbers. It is generally accepted that the law must be an instrument of social change and serve constitutional aspirations of a just and rule-of-law-based society…Relevant non-law subjects for legal education include ethics, anthropology, sociology, economics, environment and technology. Our country needs jurists who understand such matters – but it does not train such jurists.”
However, what the author omits is the an alternate route to the Bar in Bangladesh – via foreign legal education. This is an option exercised by an admittedly wealthy cohort of students, but their numbers are not negligible. While few may pursue both their undergraduate and post-graduate legal degrees abroad, many students choose to study under the University of London (External) Programme in Dhaka and subsequently complete the Bar Professional Training Course (BPTC) in the UK. This latter option has been greatly facilitated by a number of private Institutes in Dhaka and this in turn has led to the proliferation of foreign-educated lawyers and Barristers in recent years.
While such foreign education may go some way towards redressing the concerns raised by Dr. Hoque, of lawyers in Bangladesh effectively being ‘legal plumbers’ rather than jurists, the entry requirements, intellectual rigorousness and academic assessments of distance-learning courses leave quite a lot to be desired. While competent students may become equipped with a passing knowledge of Trusts law, Tort law and EU law, they are, much like their locally-educated brethren, not trained in relevant non-law subjects.
Of course, those who go onto to pursue the BPTC are faced with an altogether more difficult challenge. In the UK, they have to compete with UK domestic students and other international students, some of whom have attended the best Universities in the world. Those who are able to pass the course, after successfully completing assessments in Advocacy, Civil and Criminal Procedure, Evidence, Opinion-writing, Drafting, etc., are certainly steeled for the professional rigours of the Bar. This is especially true now as in the last couple of years the pass marks for BPTC assessments have been ratcheted up and centrally set exams have been introduced.
While raising the standard of entry to the Bar may be welcome, what might compromise such an objective is the recently revamped Bar Transfer Test (BTT), run conjointly by the UK Bar Standards Board (BSB) and BPP-London. This short course, primarily self-taught, except for a taught advocacy component in London, examines candidates’ academic and professional legal knowledge through a series of written exercises, oral assessments, MCQs. The issue, however, is that candidates are able to gain exemptions to the knowledge-based papers if they are able to convince the Qualifications Committee of the BSB that they have studied such subjects during their undergraduate degrees. Now, if there are applicants from a University in Bangladesh, there is a very slim chance that they have been taught EU Law or Tort Law to a sufficient level, yet, much to many people’s surprise, students are gaining exemptions from such Universities. As skills like Opinion Writing and Drafting are also tested through these academic papers, students who are able to gain exemptions, are not tested on these skills either. Much to the chagrin of BPTC students, the entire BTT course can be completed in a number of weeks and as a result, costs much less overall. Moreover, as the course will run twice a year and there is no limit for re-sits, there is scope for candidates to take several stabs at passing the course. As the main pre-requisite of the BTT is that candidates have to be a qualified Advocate from a Commonwealth country of two years standing before an Appellate Court, which in Bangladesh can be the District Court, there are rumblings about whether the proverbial floodgates have been opened and the legal industry in Bangladesh will be inundated with Barristers of greatly varying quality.
I suppose it is still too soon to assess how the BSB will judge such candidates and how great an intake they will allow per annum, but these are worrying signs. The attraction of ‘short cut’ methods to becoming a Barrister might be too strong an incentive for students to compromise on a thorough legal education.