Law Soc must face its responsibilities

I must declare an immediate interest. I am one of the patrons of the African Caribbean & Asian Lawyers Association and have been ever since its foundation. Recently I had the opportunity of opening its annual conference.

It was a most successful conference and one I enjoyed attending. It was overshadowed, however, by the fact that there were so many people there who, after several years, were still searching for a training contract.

There was nothing wrong with their applications and there was nothing wrong with their ability or commitment to our profession but, for whatever reason, they were still searching.

I was concerned about this problem when I represented the council in 1995 and I remain even more concerned that 18 months later nothing much appears to have been done by the Law Society to resolve the problem.

Let me review the history of the matter. The people we are talking about came into the profession, mostly from an ethnic minority background, in the late eighties, as a result of a recruitment campaign conducted by the Law Society specifically directed towards that section of our community.

It cannot be disputed therefore, that the Law Society has an obligation to ensure that their final period of training is completed. While the position may be different for those who came in after the well-publicised over-recruitment, the people that we are now talking about did not enter in those circumstances.

What, therefore, can be done? There was a working party addressing this issue in 1994. I was a member of it but I am not sure what happened after its eventual recommendations. I suspect its efforts rather got lost in all the excitement of the presidential electioneering that was starting to take place at that time.

What I do know, however, is that the problem has not gone away and it still remains. As it happened, the conference received the good news that, roughly, the demand now for trainees and the availability of current training places is nearly matching. It is, therefore, only the bulge from the past that we are concerned about. If the profession values its contribution to the community, it has a duty to come forward with positive proposals to remove that bulge sooner rather than later.

There are a number of ways it could be done. For those who have been searching for more than three years, specific provisions could be set up with the trainers.

Courses could perhaps provide for a crash programme similar to a training contract for which, of course, there would have to be a charge, but which would provide, at least, a way out for those who are trapped without any qualification.

There is a precedent: the College of Law in Sydney used to run (and may still run) such a six month course. An alternative would be for experience as a paralegal to count in lieu of a training contact in cases where the candidate took the old Law Society final examination.

I am sure there are other ideas. What I am not sure about is the will or the commitment of the Law Society to resolve this issue. It is a tragedy for all of the candidates involved whether from an ethnic minority or not, and it is a tragedy that cannot continue.