Ongoing reform calls despite improved bar exam results

The call for reforms in policy and approach to the training of law graduates in Kenya is continuing despite a slight improvement in performance in the bar examinations written last year.

According to the results released by the Council of Legal Education (CLE), a total of 445 students passed last year’s bar examinations that were written by 1,991 students. This was a 13% improvement on the previous year’s 9% pass rate, but a massive 78% of the candidates still failed the exams.

The situation is still worrying stakeholders in the legal fraternity including students, parents and law practitioners who are concerned by the massive failures recorded at the Kenya School of Law (KSL).

Bar examinations are administered by the CLE at the end of the Advocates’ Training Programme to determine qualified lawyers to be admitted to the bar. They were introduced to test the law students' ability after coursework at KSL which is meant to inculcate practical training.

A recent study published by the task force on legal reforms in Kenya noted that students from private universities performed better in the bar examinations than their counterparts at public institutions. According to the study, 79% of law graduates who failed bar examinations in the last eight years are graduates of public universities.

The researchers recommended that the CLE conduct a feasibility study to determine the capacity of higher education institutions offering law in Kenya. Further, they suggested the establishment of regional examination centres to administer the bar examination.

The study also tasked the CLE with the development of a programme to guide and motivate legal education practitioners in order to help strengthen the capacity of universities’ law faculties and cautioned that lecturers should only teach courses based on their area of specialty and qualification.

On the problems besetting the education of barristers, Dr Peter Onyango, senior lecturer at the University of Nairobi’s School of Law, said: “Insufficient training of students at undergraduate level, especially on procedural law, could be the cause of poor performance.”

Onyango, who is also a legal researcher, said overreliance on government subsidies and low payments for lecturers, was one of the factors behind inadequate training at undergraduate level for law students in public universities.

“Poor remuneration of lecturers has led to strikes, thus wasting learning hours for public university students,” said Onyango.

He called for a reduction in the two-year period that students spend at KSL which, he said, is unfair for those who have been at university for four years and also pay a lot of money for the programme.

“We need to increase stakeholder consultative forums to discuss how we can transform advocates’ training and the legal profession in this country,” said Onyango, adding that universities should establish clear criteria on research methodology to equip students with skills in legal research.

George Majimbo, an advocate of the High Court of Kenya, commended the improvement in the latest results but says that there is no guarantee of a positive trend going into the future.

“The results are very dynamic. The performance index keeps on fluctuating each and every year, sometimes informed by the number of students admitted to undertake the advocates’ training programme course,” said Majimbo.

He also suggested that various laws regulating the training of lawyers should be amended to reduce the period of time spent at the Kenya School of Law and increase the period of pupillage when one is exposed to practical application.

“The art and skill of practice is acquired during this period as opposed to what is learnt at KSL, which is more of a theoretical exercise,” he said.

Smith Mbalasi, who wrote the bar examinations last year, said the examinations set by CLE were not in tandem with the syllabus covered at KSL. Mbalasi, who still has three papers to resit, urged CLE and KSL to read from the same script in the execution of their duties.