The Sierra Leone Law School: The Exception that Proves the Rule*

*Ya Umarr*

When all else in Sierra Leone is footloose and fancy-free, the one institution that professes standards is the Sierra Leone Law School. Established in 1989 to provide legal training and certification for lawyers, the school would rage three decades on in the mixed glare of reverence and censure by the lay public. Every year, especially in the last decade the word ‘standards’ would assume different meanings in varying voices, with those who equate it with mass failure carrying the louder decibel.

Indeed mass failure is the common denominator in much of the school’s existence. Those who see this as the school’s problem and measure ‘standards’ against a digital clock are deemed not very au fait with the conservative dictates of the law profession. Realistically, blaming just the school for very poor performance in examinations, only means one is out of tune with the bigger problem facing our nation’s educational drive. That institution is but a simulacrum of our national problem, and in all fairness to it, it serves as an eloquent reminder of the inadequacies of a nation that once carried the epithet “Headquarters of British West Africa” and more blearily “Athens … . Here is the problem.

*The Boondoggle*
Since our assumption of self-rule in 1961 one thing that brands our learning system is the notion that the more difficult it is the better it gets. Staying longer in the process only assures better knowledge. Those who have been through the boondoggle are wont to subject their successors to the same or even more crucibles. Oftentimes they would patronize them with disturbing episodes of what they went through. For them learning can never get better than in that golden era. Any attempt to supplement that trend with novelty is neutered by reluctance. Hence later programs like the and the modular system in the university would be accommodated but only so far.

These programs were brought to lessen the rigidity of our old educational system like equity with the common law, and shorten the period one had to spend in school. No more class 7 in Primary school; no more Upper Six in secondary school or the Year 5 Honors class in the university. However for our educationists the seamlessness was worrying. They had to find something to blame the poor performance of pupils on. It would not be the teaching methods or extracurricular factors. Therefore as a pretext to fixing the problem the new systems have to be reviewed.

The Ministry of Education created a Commission of Inquiry to review the and appointed a chairman whose engagement with stakeholders in the sector only betrayed his nostalgic sentiments about his good old days. This is what brought about the SS 4, a seventh mandatory year in secondary school, to hark back to the Upper Six era in many respects. Thank God it came out as a false positive to the ailment and received a decent burial no sooner than it started.

In the University of Sierra Leone the modular program meant two examinations instead one for the year, fluid interdepartmental transitions by students to enhance versatility, lesser number of subjects offered per exams but overall more subjects for the academic year and lesser period in the Honors school. However in the midst of these reforms our Law School was not to be bothered. It prided itself as the last bastion of the so-called ‘One blow system’ (11 subjects, three terms and one examination) and probably the only school in the world where such number of subjects are taken for one examination.

The modular program would have treated that differently and divided the course to two examinations, so that 5 subjects would be offered for the first semester and six for the second as the case may be. The effect is simply more focus, more contact hours with tutors and less pressure—the beauty of reforms. But our authorities prefer it the good old way, probably ‘good’ because they offered only 5 subjects and not 11.

*Mass Stalling and the Overwhelmed Monopoly*
The thought that standards are only maintained by mass stalling of students rings hollow in the face of reasoning. There is a marked dichotomy between mass failure and mass stalling of students. The former does not have to lead to the latter. As much as failure is a natural concomitant of the academic process, forcing students to repeat the year is way out of kilter with modern global trends. In most schools around the world (the University of London being an example) students repeat at their own instance, that is when they wish to defer their courses etc. and are allowed to clear their references and move on. But what our educationists have brought upon the operations of the modular system in the university is nothing short of stalling.

The system in its halcyon days ensured that no one tarried for want of a pass, only one must clear their references at the end of the day. Now it has been altered to the extent that failing just one core subject in Year 2 (in either semester) is sure to make one repeat the year. Many students have been stalled sometimes for two or three years in one level. This only leaves one to wonder where the interest of the authorities lies. Is it in delaying students or ensuring that they do pass their exams?

In the context of the Law School this trend cannot be more serious. This year 91 students have to repeat the year, only to crowd out new law graduates because of space. Consistently the school maintains a record of churning out the most number of repeaters in a zillion mile radius. The worrying thing about it is the normalcy attached to repeating, as if that institution is a capsule on a spatiotemporal orbit of its own. No sense of urgency. These challenges are climaxed by the fact that students are forced to re-sit subjects they had already passed, all in the name of repeating the year. Is the Bar saturated? What about the Bar school?

*Mass Rejection*
The issue of mass failure is mostly what rivets the public but there is an equally serious problem at the entry. As a way of reducing the in-take the school authorities contrived diverse extra-statutory means ranging from the Core Module policy to the more realistic one regarding limited space. The former was a policy fallback when they could not succeed in amending the Council of Legal Education Act, 1989 to alter the major entry requirement from a third Class law degree to a second class second division. They realized it was an action in futility after a couple of not-so-procedural attempts to table the new instrument in parliament. Hence Plan B—the Core Module requirement.

Entrants must have passed all their core modules in their degree programs. As much as this policy is foul with timing it failed to countenance the requirements of the Honors program at FBC where a huge chunk of graduates come from. Being a cumulative system the Honors class did not allow for re-sit of a module. Both passed and failed grades would be calculated to provide a cumulative grade point that determines one’s degree. The new graduates were therefore caught off guard between Law School’s failure to notify them earlier and the impossibility of clearing their references after being awarded their degrees. About two batches were left out of the loop because of this. Fourah Bay College had to adjust their Honors program to meet this new Law School requirement.

The latest law graduates from Fourah Bay College would have to wait for another year for admission. In other words FBC has two categories of graduates that cannot be admitted at the same time for want of space. University of Makeni, University of London and Njala University are sure to add to the droves of repeaters, thereby overwhelming a school that has transitioned from a single shift to a two class system to two tutors per subject and, may be in the next session, to conducting al fresco classes, as is typical with Fourah Bay College nowadays. In essence four universities and more from the diaspora are feeding into one Law School. The result is the crowding out of many qualified students, and this gives more meaning to the quota system alleged to be operated by the school. How does one make the quota?

*The Stalemate at Council*
The erstwhile Director’s response to the Attorney General’s letter which requested her to proceed on leave pending investigations relating to complaints about the conduct of examinations is an interesting reminder of the case of the hunter becoming the hunted. Both are citing provisions of the CLE Act, 1989, making the moribund statute the new panacea for justice. All these years perverting the Act on a whim was the norm and they clinged on to a make-believe mandate that Council can make its own laws/regulations. Whether that mandate extends to changing express provisions of the Act without recourse to parliament is what eludes reasoning. Many lawyers viewed this with social acceptance, inclined to accept that whatever the establishment does is ok. *”This is what we went through, so…?”*

However despite merits of either party’s case in this stalemate, the only true constant is ‘the affected student’ since bygone era. The one who by the provisions of the Act was qualified for admission but by Council’s standards was rejected; the ones who over the years were declared fail but denied the opportunity of seeing their results; the one who is forced to repeat the year for failing just the June exams instead of getting the chance to clear their total reference in the September exams and be Called to the Bar the same year; and obviously the one who is victimized for so much as raising a voice on his rights.

Many who criticize just the Chief Justice and the Attorney General for acting arbitrarily may only be viewing the problem from a tinted lens, for it’s actually the case of arbitrariness used to stem the unceasing flow of arbitrariness. For the former Director who holds the thinking that a colleague in Council cannot “usurp the powers of Council” she may need to look beyond Council a little bit to see that what hangs over her is an issue relating to criminality and should an investigation be launched against her administration it is a matter of best practice for her to bow out. Hence the Attorney General as the principal legal adviser to government cannot be remiss in asking any head of a public institution to resign or proceed on leave pending criminal investigations.

*The Answer*
As hinted above the actual problem lies not in a school that has demonstrated reluctance in embracing forward-looking reforms but in the mindset of Sierra Leoneans who think our educational system and by extension our legal education should remain the preserve of antiquity. In this sense the Sierra Leone Law School is marked with series of distinctions. First it is the only MDA that gets a tap on the back for failing—the Exception. It is beyond the radar of any performance contract set by the Office of the President. In its sluggish strides to reform it has acquired the reputation of copying only negative trends from other jurisdictions unlike other MDA’s. For instance mass failure in Sierra Leone would be justified with massive failure in Ghana. To defend their over 100% increment in fees the authorities would tell you we pay the lowest in the sub-region, without citing the fact that our economy is among those in dire straits.

To get a sustainable remedy we first have to determine whether the school has not outlived its usefulness. I believe any investigation done on it would not take long to arrive at this conclusion. The growing tide of graduates means only that we need institutions to accommodate them. This applies to all disciplines in academia. We don’t need a backlog of law graduates at FBC who have to wait another year to gain admission if other institutions can operate Law Schools even better. A National Bar Final Examination Board will conduct a national bar exams so that those who teach in the various Law Schools do not have to mark scripts. This will ensure more fairness and eradicate the problem of malpractices that we get almost every year.

On a conclusive note, the future of young Sierra Leoneans cannot be left in the hands of a few set of people plagued with delusions of grandeur, lest we risk seeing endless stints of human rights abuses that would make Foday Sankoh a saint in our common era. One cannot gainsay the urgency that our educational system needs to catch up with modern global trends and the Sierra Leone Law School with all its professed ‘standards’ is the one true exception that proves that rule.

*Ya Umarr*
*Founder and CEO*
*Project 77*
*An African Think Tank*

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