THE LEGAL FRONT
By JUSTICE ART D. BRION (RET.)
The immediate focus of legal education is to educate and qualify law students for the Bar exams. Hidden by this short-term view is the role legal education plays in the administration of justice; it trains the students who in the future would man the ramparts of the administration of justice.
Between law students’ education and their future role, is the Bar exam – the filtering mechanism that separates the qualified from the unqualified. Through this Supreme Court-administered annual exam, qualified students metamorphose into lawyers granted the exclusive privilege of providing legal advice to, and handling court cases for, the public. Lawyers, when they so act, serve as officers of the courts in the administration of justice.
Thus viewed, legal education undertakes a role imbued with public interest, a role that brings it within the ambit of the exercise of the police power or the overriding power of the State to act for the public welfare.
Legal education, while subject to police power, is not totally powerless against the latter’s intrusions because of the academic freedom that educational institutions enjoy under the Constitution.
Ideally, this freedom grants educational institutions the right to determine their admission policies, the qualification of teachers, the courses for study, and teaching methodologies, without interference from administrative officials or from the State.
When police power and academic freedom intersect, as they inevitably must in legal education, lessons from the Constitution hold that the State has the upper hand, but only to the extent necessary to serve the demands of public interest. In this calibrated manner, academic freedom is meaningfully preserved.
The limits of how far the State can intervene in legal education through its police power are not easy to determine. In the Philippine experience, the academic freedom of law schools, however, has a very high bar to hurdle in light particularly of the undisputed failure of many law schools to deliver their expected results.
Among others, the law schools’ average Bar passing rate of 25% per year falls way below the reasonable expectation of everyone – of the State whose interests in justice are endangered by the potential paucity of lawyers and specter of future erosion of legal service; and of the students whose hopes are anchored on a fruitful future as lawyers.
These considerations, in my view, justify the State’s close regulation of law schools through the Legal Education Board (LEB). .
One LEB intervention is the imposition of minimum grade qualification requirements in the admission of applicants to law school. Another is the requirement that applicants for admission pass a law admission exam (the PhiLSAT).
The LEB generally leaves the implementation of grade qualification requirements to law schools and requires only a report. The data below show the LEB’s experience with its reporting requirement.
For Academic Year 2016-2017, 113 law schools reported the enrollment of 23,731 students. 11 law schools failed to submit their reports. For Academic Year 2017-2018, 21,830 enrolled in 97 law schools; 29 law schools failed to submit their reports. In the 2018-2019 Academic Year, only 44 law schools have so far reported, showing a total of 7,564 enrolled students.
These statistics show how loosely some law schools view their reporting responsibilities.
On the PhiLSAT admission exam that has incurred the ire of some law schools, the LEB has interestingly been very lenient in its handling of PhiLSAT.
- In Academic Year 2017-2018, the LEB conditionally admitted those who missed to take the test, subject to taking the immediately subsequent test; even those who did not pass the PhiLSAT could be admitted by deans, provided written justifications were submitted to LEB by the deans.
- In Academic Year 2018-2019, applicants who had not yet taken the PhiLSAT were conditionally admitted in the 1st Semester by law schools that had a passing rate of at least 25% for new/first-time examinees in the 2017 bar examinations, subject to taking and passing the next PhiLSAT.
- In Academic Year 2019-2020, law school were given the option to admit as regular students applicants with PhiLSAT scores up to 45% (passing score was 55%).
Notably, the LEB has even set the PhiLSAT admission score at a lower level to accommodate as many applicants as possible without bringing the integrity of the exam to disrepute.
The LEB’s PhiLSAT exams administered in the last 2 years show that under the LEB’s original 55% passing score cut-off, 58% of PhiLSAT examinees would already pass.
The LEB still reduced the passing score cut-off to 45% to allow law schools and students to adjust to the PhiLSAT, bringing the successful examinees to 81%, an accommodation that allowed 23% more to qualify for admission.
For context, note that had the cut-off score been reduced to 25%, then all PhiLSAT examinees would have made it. This move, however, is not sensible as it will defeat the purpose of the admission exam – to admit only students prepared for and qualified to handle the rigors of law school. Unprepared students – particularly those who cannot even write passable English – are the ones who, as early as their 1st year in law school, have already flunked the Bar exam.
The law schools, particularly the struggling ones, have reacted adversely to the PhiLSAT, even filing a case with the Supreme Court to nullify this admission requirement. An unspoken reason for the objection is the resulting limited enrollment, a situation that diminishes law school income.
The court has yet to resolve the PhiLSAT case. Hopefully, it will decide soon based on strict merits and the demands of the public interest in legal education.
As matters now stand, the clamor is getting louder to defang the LEB; some even call for the Supreme Court to go beyond its constitutionally assigned duty to oversee the admission to the Bar. We have yet to see what the Supreme Court will do.
I will keep hoping for a fair, reasonable, and unbiased reading of the Constitution.