Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Singapore Bar Course Fees Crippling

LETTER SENT TO CHAIRMAN, SINGAPORE INSTITUTE OF LEGAL EDUCATION AND PRESIDENT, LAW SOCIETY OF SINGAPORE

It has recently been brought to my attention that the course fees for the equivalent of the Postgraduate Practical Law Course now known as the Preparatory Course leading to Part B of the Singapore Bar Examinations, now conducted by the Singapore Institute of Legal Education, has rose from S$4,280 (in 2008) to S$6,420 for Singapore citizens.

The justification given for this is that the course content has been profoundly enhanced and that these fees are usually reimbursed by the law firms offering retention contracts to the relevant course participants.

It is not a given that all such firms will reimburse the course fees. The reality today also is that not all law firms will retain their practice trainees. Many are also not willing to accept the onus of reimbursing unretained practice trainees their course fees. An exception to this is my former firm, WongPartnership LLP, that reimbursed such fees, even though the person was eventually not retained. It is unfortunate the Law Society has not been very successful in encouraging others to adopt such exemplary practice, preferring - to the frustration of young lawyers - to leave it to “market conditions”.

I am not sure if the justification has taken into account that this represents a 50% increase in the course fees, based on 2008 figures.

In a jurisdiction like England & Wales, where I sat on my university’s fee-fixing committee, such an increase would be extreme and it will bring students to the streets. We had a clear policy in my university that any fee increase should be capped at 10%, and such increase would be subject to reviews by a committee of course convenors and students.

Thankfully, for SILE, we don’t live in such a demonstrative culture but we have a consultative culture. I do not recall SILE holding a consultation on such a matter. If it it did, I am ashamed that I did not express my reservations earlier.

I am not sure if the justification takes into account the circumstances of some students. I am the son of a cleaner. If I had to do the course today and taking into account that no financial institution would give my father a loan due to the high potentiality of default, I would find the figure crippling. When I did the course, I had to fund it out of a credit line, which carried an exorbitant interest rate of 24% [per annum]. I only had that facility due to my work in Singapore’s labour movement but I am not sure how many students have access to such facilities to do the same today.

In any case, the fact that most students have accepted this increase possibly reflects that they come from comfortable backgrounds. An equally plausible reason is that they don’t wish to ruffle the feathers of SILE, lest it attracts other consequences. I remember this was a real fear among my peers, who did the course (when it was under the oversight of the Board of Legal Education) with me and had concerns to raise about the course.

I accept that it will be an embarrassing situation for SILE to now revisit this increase, as much as I would like it to.

SILE and the Law Society should engage law firms, who employ practice trainees, to see if they can pay such fees upfront for practice trainees.

Alternatively, I hope that SILE and the Law Society can set up a fund to extend financial assistance to course participants, who are Singapore citizens and unable to secure retention contracts at law firms. I stand willing to pledge a donation to the fund.

Additionally, SILE and the Law Society should establish an independent committee to regularly review its course fees so that it remains affordable, taking into account the effect of inflation and other course enhancements.

As members of the legal fraternity, we have a duty towards these new potential members of our brethren. Access to our profession should be inclusive, not crippling to those who cannot afford it.

Happiness,
Dharmendra Yadav

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