No conversion course for external law degree holders

New law school at UniSIM won't offer course, despite earlier recommendation to do so

A group of law graduates anticipating a conversion course that would allow them to become full-fledged lawyers here were left disappointed when told the course would not be offered after all.

It was earlier recommended that Singapore's third law school, at UniSIM, offer the course to those with external law degrees or law degrees from universities not on the list of approved overseas institutions here. The course was expected to take one to two years.

But UniSIM told The Straits Times last month that the law school, which opens next year, will not offer the course. It said it has received "a handful" of queries on the course since the law school was announced in February.

In 2013, the Fourth Committee on the Supply of Lawyers headed by then Judge of Appeal V.K. Rajah, now Attorney-General, had proposed that the course be provided at a new third law school.

The Government had welcomed the recommendations. Law Minister K. Shanmugam said in a 2013 Facebook post the third law school "will also offer conversion courses for those with external and non- scheduled degrees to qualify for admission to the Singapore Bar".

ADDRESSING SHORTAGE

The conversion course is the best way to efficiently address the shortage of community lawyers since a number of graduates are already in the community law field doing everything but advocacy.

THE PETITION ORGANISERS, urging MinLaw to allow holders of external law degrees to gain admission to the Singapore Bar via a conversion course.

Legal counsel Jean Gan, 28, one of three people who had set up a Facebook page and petition in 2012 urging the Ministry of Law (MinLaw) to allow holders of external law degrees to gain admission to the Singapore Bar, said they are "disappointed and surprised".

There are 350 participants on the Facebook page, and the petition, which has since closed, has nearly 300 signatures. The other two organisers are legal manager Hannah Angsana, 27, and contracts manager Liyana Rahim, 27. The trio hold external law degrees from the University of London.

There will be just two courses at the new law school - the Juris Doctor (JD) programme for degree holders, and a Bachelor of Laws (LLB) course for A-level or diploma holders. The JD course takes three to six years, while the LLB programme takes four to six years.

But the petition organisers said the JD programme would take two to five years longer for them to be fully qualified as lawyers.

"The conversion course is the best way to efficiently address the shortage of community lawyers since a number of graduates are already in the community law field doing everything but advocacy," they said.

MinLaw told ST last month the UniSIM Law School Steering Committee had recommended that those with external or unscheduled law degrees seek admission to the Singapore Bar via the JD programme. It said this would avoid duplication of law programmes at the new school, while ensuring that only the most suitable applicants with prior degrees can gain admission to the Singapore Bar.

It added that a JD programme would ensure "high standards in mastery of our own local laws", given that "family and criminal law are largely domestic and that many aspects are specific to our jurisdiction and social context".

But the petition organisers said courses such as the Part A Bar Course, conducted by the Singapore Institute of Legal Education - a conversion course for overseas graduates from approved universities - "would have been the yardstick for one's knowledge and application of Singapore's laws".

Legal executive Sheryl Keith Nuqui, 26, who has a University of London law degree, wants to apply for the JD programme at UniSIM despite being "a little let down" about the lack of a conversion course. "Having said that, I'm actually quite happy for the opportunity to refresh my legal principles under the JD programme," she said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 02, 2016, with the headline 'No conversion course for external law degree holders'. Print Edition | Subscribe