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Bid for independence obstructing UG Law grads automatic entry to Hugh Wooding

The refusal by the University of the West Indies (UWI), Cave Hill campus, to accept a proposal by the Law Department of the University of Guyana (UG) for greater control over its programme is stalling a 2015 agreement for the automatic entry of UG’s top 25 law graduates into the Hugh Wooding Law School (HWLS).

This is according to Head of the Law Department (HoD) at UG, Sheldon Mc Donald. Until now, McDonald has opted not to pronounce on the issue publicly, but during an exclusive interview Demerara Waves Online News the HoD said he wants to ensure persons are appropriately informed on the issue.

Mc Donald said that there are proposals by members of the Council of Legal Education (CLE) for the new agreement to consist of having “different signatories to the agreement,” and the changing of “names and dates.”

There are several components of UG’s proposal which Mc Donald said was finalised and proposed since January, 2015. One is a push for UG to be made a participating member of the Council of Legal Education (CLE). While the Agreement Establishing the CLE 1970 makes provision for “the head of the Judiciary,” and the “Attorney General of each participating territory” to be members of the CLE, UG itself “is excluded from participation,” and “not even invited as an observer.”

McDonald says UG wants to be made a participating member, and argues that until this is made so via a new agreement the university should, at least, be invited to CLE meetings as an observer. He did note though, that Guyana’s failure to pay its share of the law school’s economic costs continues to weaken its position.

The most contentious element of UG’s proposal is a bid for enhance independence from UWI.  

When UG commenced offering the law programme in the mid 1990’s, only the first year of the three-year programme was offered in Guyana. Upon completion of the first year of the programme students went to the University of the West Indies (UWI), Cave Hill, Barbados to complete the LLB. UG has since been allowed to offer the entire three years of the programme.

The condition, however, was that the overall programme be supervised by Cave Hill, and that all First Year exams be set and second marked at Cave Hill. In January, former UG Registrar, Vincent Alexander, told Demerara Waves Online News that the cost for this second marking stands at UG US$24,000 annually.

Additionally, the UG LLB is deemed ‘equivalent’ to the UWI LLB as “the UWI LLB is set as the holy grail of LLBs in the Caribbean.

Both Alexander and McDonald, however, believe that the UG law programme has “matured to the point” where second marking and supervision from Cave Hill is not needed.

“The UG LLB has been acknowledged by at least one former Dean of UWI…Since then the standards have improved,” argues McDonald. McDonald’s is also contending that “Cave Hill is no longer the epicenter of legal education in the Caribbean,” but is instead just another of several campuses that offer the LLB program.

The second marking mechanism also has inefficiencies, McDonald says. For instant, first-year students of the 2013/2014 academic year did not get their second marked grades for two courses – Criminal Law 2 and Law of Torts 2 until they were well into the first semester of their second year.

Students say they were not given sufficient explanations as to why it took such a long time for them to receive their grades. Also, the tardy release of the grades meant that many of them were not able to take supplemental exams when they were offered last summer as they did not know their grades. Students are only now being able to take these exams.  

McDonald also shared an instant where a student was wrongly awarded an ‘F’ by a local lecturer. This lecturer eventually realised the mistake and corrected the error. The second markers at Cave Hill, however, had endorsed the incorrect grade, sending it back unchanged.

It is in this light, McDonald says, that “UG, in a changed context, has put forward a comprehensive approach which was not accepted.” He is insisting though, that UG “is not agreeing with the status quo on the matter.

Instead of second marking, he believes that Cave Hill can take a sample of marked scripts to verify consistency of marking, as it does internally.

Commenting on the level of lecturers who instruct classes at UG, McDonald said that while Cave Hill has competent and experienced lecturers, “there is nobody there of the ilk of Professor (Keith) Massiah; of the ilk of Former CCJ Justice, (Professor Duke) Pollard. McDonald also made reference to Senior Lecturer Christopher Ram, who has been a practitioner and a lecturer of his field for years.

Alexander had also said that “there are hardly instances where second markers turn down our marks, and the quality of our markers are comparable to those at UWI.”

Documents seen by this news outlet shows that from 2001 to 2012 the average GPA of UG’s law students was at its lowest in 2001 at 2.6. Since then, and in the one year prior to that, the average GPA has not fallen below 2.7, which is a ‘credit.’ The average GPA peaked in 2005 at ‘3.1,’ before returning to 2.7 in 2006. The average GPA in 2007 and 2008 was 2.8 for both years, while the averages from 2010 to 2012 stood at 2.9 for all three years. For the same period, the majority of each class has either graduated with a credit of a distinction.

According to McDonald, entrance into the UG law programme is immensely competitive, and that the programme itself is very competitive as only the top 25 graduating students of each batch is guaranteed a place at Hugh Wooding Law School in Trinidad and Tobago. These variables make for good results on a yearly basis.

Yet, McDonald, laments “Cave Hill is insisting that the system of second marking continue at a serious economic cost the UG….we believe it is no longer relevant and appropriate.” He believes that the insistence by Cave Hill on maintaining the system is an indication by the campus that “we (UG) cannot be trusted.”

Former Legal Affairs Minister and Attorney General (AG), Anil Nandlall, has on several occasions stated his opposition to such independence as he believes that UG’s ties to UWI allows UG’s LLB to share the eminence of the UWI LLB.

Current AG, Basil Williams, has shared that the Heads of Caricom states, upon being prompted by Guyana, have asked the CLE to see that UG’s top 25 law students are accepted. While Williams has expressed optimism that the request will be honored, as was the case last year, the students are looking for a higher degree of certainty.