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Salient. An Organ of Student Opinion at Victoria University College, Wellington N.Z. Vol. 21, No. 2. March 27, 1958

Which is an Ass— — The Law or the Examiner?

Which is an Ass—

The Law or the Examiner?

In 1957, a very considerable proportion (over half) the Vic. candidates for the New Zealand University examination in the Law of Evidence failed to meet with the approval of the learned examiner in the subject, Mr. J. D. Willis, Stipendiary Magistrate, and editor of Garrow's "Law of Evidence in New Zealand".

The proportion of Vic. failures in the Law of Contract was also high.

These incidents have caused a stir among the students in our Law Faculty, and many of them have been asking what is wrong with (a) the method of examining at the national level; (b) the system of teaching at the local level; (c) the course itself or, possibly, (d) the calibre of Wellington students.

In the particular case of Evidence, the choice seems to lie between (a) and (b) above. To say the least of it, the local lecturer and the national examiner appear to be at cross-purposes. Their conceptions of the scope and essence of the subject are light-years apart. Since there has been a tendency among students to blame the lecturer (presumably because he was nearer and therefore more vulnerable) rather than the examiner, let us here take a brief look at each.

Dr. George Barton has academic distinctions in Law which are unparalleled in the Faculty. Whatever his faults technically as a lecturer, he teaches the subject as a subject worthy of inclusion in a university course—discusses its principles and their application in an adult manner.

Mr. Willis, from a bar career undistinguished by anything except being selected to assist a Royal Commission on pubs, was appointed to the Magistracy in that cultured centre of the nation, Invercargill—the same centre to which Mr. Stuart Hardie was appointed after he had endeared himself to the people of Wellington by trying to ban the Vic. Capping Procession in 1954. Since his appointment to the bench, Mr. Willis has never hit the headlines for anything except intolerable moral homilies read to defenceless prisoners, and persistent cries for the restoration of corporal punishment. The book which he has edited has been described as the worst legal textbook that has ever been written. This can hardly be blamed entirely on him, as the work had the initial disadvantage of having been first conceived in the mind of the late Professor Garrow who was never a clear or logical thinker. Willis's version of Garrow on Evidence is, however, infinitely worse than Adam"s version of Garrow on property or Evans-Scott's version of Garrow on Crimes. Works on evidence have often been quoted in judgments of Courts in New Zealand, but it has been stated authoritatively that Willis's work has never been quoted in any Court "except by a certain well-known Magistrate in the South Island".

It might be expected, then, that the learned author of this work would be scarcely a satisfactory person to be in charge of examining students in evidence. In fact, the results have been fantastic. While Otago and Canterbury, where staffs in the Law Faculty are all part-time and the standard is universally acknowledged to be lower than in the North, can boast up to 100% passes, Vic's failure rate is over 50%! Not only that, but students who show considerable promise—in one case a student who won first-class terms—fail, while self-confessed dullards score heavily. In 1956 two policemen who came up to take the subject for C.O.P. (one of them a prominent member of the politically obtuse Security Police) won high marks from Mr. Willis—indicating the police court standards which he apparently accepts as perfection—in an institution of higher learning!

This question is not, however, limited to Evidence. The whole of our law course suffers from the petty standards imposed by examiners. It might be argued that this is due to having outside examiners who are for the most part engaged in the business of law as practitioners, and that since the whole aim of the course is to produce lawyers, then they are precisely the right people to choose for the job; that the academic and theoretical side of law is all very well, but is no use to the bloke who wants to get out and draw documents and win cases. But in fact the examiners at present often do not even encourage the sort of knowledge that would equip students for practical work. To ask (as did the examiner in Trusts last year) what are the provisions of two numbered clauses of a certain Act is the wildest inanity imaginable, and an insult to the intelligence of students. If the practitioner wants to know what an Act says, he looks it up. If it were necessary to success as a lawyer that the Statutes of New Zealand should be committed to memory, then the expectation of life in the profession would be very much shorter than it is, and electronic machines would be much better able to excel at the bar than human beings.

What lawyers need is a sympathetic and thorough knowledge of the broad principles of the law in its various branches; an understanding of the history of important aspects of the law, and their social and other implications; and an intelligent training in where and how to seek information on problems that arise. Any other sort of legal education is more fitting for a cram-school or a polytechnic than for a university.

If our law schools are to be any use at all, all power to the Bartons and curtains down on the Willis's.

I remain for obvious reasons—