Irish solution brings stability

Next year, the Institute of Professional Legal Studies celebrates its 20th birthday. It will also celebrate a control system envied by its neighbours, which has brought many advantages for those studying there.

Students entering the institute have a more settled career ahead of them those anywhere else in the UK. Work is integrated into their training more successfully than elsewhere, and government funding is justified by the fact that there is no oversupply of students.

That funding has assisted in the strategic planning and development of the profession in Northern Ireland. An open door policy would have imposed intolerable strains on what is a small profession of 1,400 solicitors and 400 barristers.

As Professor Mary McAleese, pro-vice chancellor of Queen's University, Belfast, said in her inaugural lecture last month: “Alone in these islands, we in Northern Ireland have brought effective management and not crisis management to the issue of controlling entry to the legal profession. We have created the right environment for controlling entry, and we have created the right environment for the delivery of a high quality vocational programme. Whether in doing so we remain vulnerable to challenges made elsewhere remains to be seen.”

The institute was set up in Belfast in 1977 following the report of the Armitage Committee on Legal Education in Northern Ireland, and is now the sole provider of legal vocational training in the jurisdiction. Although it is a constituent part of the university it has important links with the professions.

These are given a formal structure through the institute's governing body, the Council for Legal Education. Seven of its 15 members are drawn from the two professional bodies and it is chaired by a senior judge.

In 1988 after the Bromley Committee's report on professional legal education in Northern Ireland, substantial changes were made at the Institute and within the profession, to allow for greater and more structured integration of training at the institute with work experience.

The Bromley Committee also considered the vexed question of admission to the institute and the present procedures are based on its recommendations. It opted to restrict the numbers entering the institute and, consequently, the profession.

The committee's report considered there were a number of reasons for controlling numbers. Overcrowding, it was decided, would lead to problems of unemployment and erosion of standards. Planning a vocational education would be difficult if numbers fluctuated significantly from year to year, and impossible if resources were not fixed. It was also argued that the Government could not justify using public money to provide professional training for a greater number of students than were required to meet community needs.

It was therefore decided to set a maximum number of students for each branch of the profession. The figures are set every three years by the Council of Legal Education, after consultation with the Executive Council of the Inn of Court and the Council of the Law Society. For some time they have remained at 70 solicitors and 20 Bar students each year. This quota is set in the knowledge that the Department of Education (DoE) – the prime financier of the institute – has to be satisfied that the figures are realistic with regard to the number of people the profession needs.

In order to make this assessment, the DoE requires the professional bodies to supply them with manpower planning information, for example numbers in practice, wastage rates and patterns of growth and decline. Hence the Government exercises tremendous influence over numbers at the institute.

The quota means that the flood of almost 400 applicants for the institute this year must be reduced to the trickle of 90 successful entrants.

This is carried out by way of a competitive skills-based examination held each December. To the exam result is added a weighted mark based on each applicant's degree result, giving a final mark for each candidate. These marks are listed and 20 Bar and 70 solicitor students are selected in order of merit. The first 60 of the applicants are recommended for bursaries, while the remaining 30 are offered, fee-paying places.

For student solicitors, the year at the institute is part of a two-year apprenticeship. It begins with a period of four months, from September to December, in the office with their training partner before coming to the institute in January. It continues with one year at the institute studying full time for the Certificate in Professional Legal Studies.

During the academic vacations students return to their offices for more work experience. The apprenticeship ends with another eight months in-office training before qualification.

Bar students spend a week work-shadowing a pupil master immediately prior to commencing their course. They then start their year at the institute in September and finish the following June. After graduating from the institute, Bar students complete a 12-month pupillage.

Training solicitor and Bar students is a joint operation, and though a significant proportion of the course is tailored to the needs of one or other of the professions, 80 per cent of the subjects are taken together.

This means that all the students attend the same lectures, but not necessarily the same tutorials or practical sessions. The follow-up tutorials and practical exercises may, where it makes sense to do so, concentrate on the development of skills in different tasks for each professional group. The remaining 20 per cent of the course is designed solely for one or other branch of the profession.

Skills training has been a feature of institute courses for a number of years, and the institute was one of the forerunners in the development of this area of training in the UK.

Presently all students undertake courses in advocacy, drafting , negotiation, legal research and client care.

Practical training is emphasised in all the courses taught. In this, the institute is greatly helped by the large number of practitioners who are prepared to assist the full time teaching staff in practical exercises, and, where appropriate, in lecturing. In addition, members of both professional bodies act as external examiners, as course consultants and as judges in mock trials. This practitioner input is the oxygen of the institute – it keeps it alive, fresh and flourishing. It is also vital to the good health of the partnership between the institute and the professions in the education of the practitioners of tomorrow.