Coming down from the ivory tower

Peter Birks

Peter Birks is an outspoken critic of the legal education world, to which he is dedicated

If anyone inhabits the perfect academic ivory tower, it has to be Peter Birks. Regius professor of law at Oxford, he is a Fellow of All Souls College and has his rooms directly over the picture book entrance gate to the college.

But Birks is one academic who has descended into the market, cudgel in hand, in the momentous debate on the future of legal education on behalf of the Society of the Public Teachers of Law, of which he is secretary.

Legal education, he declares is in the melting pot. "It is one of those times when the plates are giving a big shift," he says.

There are two big issues, Birks says, getting briskly down to business. "The first is the division between the academic and the professional or the vocational."

All the areas where the law becomes involved with people, as in criminal and civil procedures, have been lost to the academic world. He welcomes the legal practice course for allowing law schools "at least to put one foot in the post academic world".

But the current approach means there are practical subjects that need to be "academicised", instead of being ignored by the schools. The silence of the law schools on legal aid reform obviously disturbs him.

Writing recently, Birks has berated law schools for taking too lowly a view of their place in the development of the law, having being "pushed around" by the professions and put at a disadvantage by their own vice-chancellors creaming off the schools' profits.

The second issue is "the fight against minimalism": "How much law should lawyers have before they are let loose on the public?" The present system of three years of degree and one year of vocational just about passes muster, but those who do a one-year conversion course or do law with another subject are inadequately educated legally in his view.

"I am very opposed to these quick jobs. I don't think we would tolerate one-year or one-and-a-half year doctors."

He blames the professions for this and thinks their record has been poor in dictating what lawyers do.

In relation to the conversion courses, which he thinks should be two years, the "real forces" are "the strong middle class interest in having a relatively easy route into the legal profession".

He rejects as a scam the argument that those with non-law degrees are more adaptable. "No one could say that the lawyers coming through this university have a mind-deadening education."

Birks draws hope from the review undertaken by the Lord Chancellor's advisory committee. He hopes that it will recommend trusting universities more "but with some sort of charter that committed the universities to producing people with a certain range of skills and intellectual capacities".

His solution for financing legal education is for the professions to take responsibility, with liberal scholarships and greater availability of loan finance. He wants both sides of the profession to have a common education system, as in Scotland, where Birks spent part of his academic life.

Coming from a medical family, the choice of law may have been an act of independence rather than rebellion. He did his first degree in Oxford, under the late Professor John Kelly, the Irish constitutional lawyer. A "surprise" first opened the doors to an academic life.

His involvement with legal education began when he was on the advisory committee before it became statutory. He was instrumental in establishing the LPC course at the Oxford Institute of Legal Practice set up jointly by the city's two universities. "I think this is an enormously hopeful development," says Birks.

Birks is known for his dedication to the cause of legal education, his definite views on it and his ability to put them across forcefully. But he is said to become too emotionally involved with his arguments, which has marred working with others. His political skills are not his strongest suite.

But Alistair Shaw of the advisory committee pays tribute to the work he undertook for the society and standing conference. "He has an extraordinarily distinguished mind with a wide experience of substantive law." Birks devoted much energy to the question of the right direction for law teaching and helped the committee forward. "He is committed to a vision of legal education as it ought to be," says Shaw.