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The Spike [or Victoria University College Review 1961]

Law at Victoria

page 50

Law at Victoria

When Professor McLaurin started the first law course at this University in 1899 he could not have realized that the tender plant he was fostering then could develop into the healthy giant which is now so prominent a part of the University scene. The Law Faculty now contains something over 325 students, the largest Law Faculty in New Zealand. Nor could Professor McLaurin have realized the great changes which would take place in the law course. Roman Law, long regarded as the backbone of legal training, has gone. In its place is a subject known as 'The Legal System', the precise contents of which Faculty and students are still struggling to define. Professor McLaurin would probably have been the first person to regret, as many of us do now, that the number of Arts units required for the law course has been whittled down to three. Other changes have taken place in the course. The Law of Contract has now had about a third of itself amputated, and so has Property. The amputated parts have become a subject known as Commercial Law and Law of Personal Property, and Partnership now forms part of the Company Law syllabus. The Law of Trusts has become Equity and however much of it was not originally Equity has become part of a new subject, Family Law and the Law of Succession. There are now nineteen subjects, both arts and law, which the student with law in his mind as a career must take to realize his ambitions. Most students manage this in five years, some in four, and some are still trying.

Although the law course now bears only a superficial resemblance to what it was in 1899 — or even for that matter in 1939 — these are not the only changes that have taken place. Inspired by overseas teaching techniques, principally American, the teaching of law at Victoria has been revolutionized. While the Law Faculty does not, as so many American law schools do, follow slavishly the Harvard case method, it has been realized that in law parrot learning is virtually useless and that the student must be made to think. This has meant that straightforward lecturing as such has to a considerable extent been discarded. Class discussion is frequently used. Mere memorizing of the text-books is regarded as insufficient to ensure a pass — the student must have some thoughts of his own.

What is the purpose of all this reorganization, and what are the aims of the Law Faculty? In the first place the long overdue reorganization of the law course was necessary to increase coverage of necessary subjects. Many topics in previous years were neglected: many received emphasis for their academic rather than practical value. This has been changed. In the last few years it has been realized that academic learning in a law course is not useful unless it is linked to practical realities. An attempt has been made to combine the two, and training is now provided in almost every topic which forms part of a lawyer's daily practice.

All this relates to the content of the law course; but what of the methods of teaching law? The Law Faculty's thoughts on this stem from the view that anyone who acquires a law degree from Victoria must be a lawyer, not a walking text-book or an academic with his head in the clouds. But it is frequently said that a University education in law provides only the basis for a more practical training in the office. If page 51 this is so, why does the Law Faculty trouble to give the student any more than a bare outline of the basic legal principles? Merely to do this would be to do a grave disservice to the legal profession. A man who leaves the Law Faculty knowing nothing but legal principles is not the sort of man we want to see in practice. There is more to law than legal principles. The type of student the Faculty wishes to turn out is one who not only knows his law but knows how to use it and knows how to think like a lawyer.

How do we try to achieve this? Most class discussion takes the form of discussion of problems which have arisen or could arise in actual practice. In the first two years of his law course the student is thrown bodily into this type of 'live' situation both in his class work and in his written exercises. From the start he is applying law as a lawyer must learn to apply it. Discussion in tutorials provides each student with assistance in this. He is forced to argued and forced to think.

All this means the expenditure of a great deal of time. Fortunately most students now coming through the Faculty spend their first two years full-time. By the time they have finished those first two years they have acquired something of legal technique. This makes it easier for them to deal with their remaining subjects on a part time basis, but they are still subjected throughout the course to a barrage of lecture room questioning, probing, and argument. Every student must take part in moot courts whose judges are drawn from practising members of the legal profession. From the start to the finish of their career in law at Victoria they must learn to grapple with legal problems and legal argument.

Looking into the future is always a hazardous occupation, but there are some problems which will have to be faced in legal education at Victoria. The first is staffing. The full-time members of the Law Faculty, supported as they are by part-time law teachers of great ability, still have a very heavy teaching load. Most law teachers at most Australian Universities are responsible for teaching a maximum of two law subjects. Any more is regarded as excessive. At Victoria most full-time Faculty members teach three subjects, in some cases four. Their teaching load must be lightened if they are to be fully effective. With increased full-time staff, which will undoubtedly become available within the next few years, it will be possible to increase the scope of the Faculty's operations. Not the least of these are further and more frequent tutorials, and far greater attention to individual students than it is at present possible to give.

The second problem which will have to be faced in the future is the Law Faculty's library facilities. At present these are pitifully inadequate. The Law Reading Room is already far too small for the numbers who want to use it, and there are deplorable gaps in the range of text-books available. Both these situations should soon be corrected by increased library funds, and new and extensive accommodation for the whole of the Law Faculty is to be provided in the proposed Arts and Library Building.

The third problem is not as easy. With increased staff and better facilities the question whether the law course should be a full-time one is bound to arise. On this opinion is divided. No one would doubt that a full-time degree course would have page 52 very desirable features. On the other hand it is impossible to overlook the value of work in a law office during completion of the degree. This is not to say that every New Zealand law office sets itself out consciously to provide a student with legal training. Many do not. The important thing, however, is that in the course of their office work students gain experience in dealing with each other, in meeting each other, and in discussing their problems in a far more practical atmosphere than that of a full-time University course. Their work takes them into the Stamp Office, the Land Transfer Office and the courts. There they experience law in action and no one would deny the value of this experience. Their years as part-time students are not wasted. Their working experience complements their degree course and whether consciously or not they acquire one aspect of practical training which it is no part of the University's duty to supply.

A further factor is that it is obviously quite fruitless to think of a full-time law course unless ample bursaries or scholarships are made available. Where the money for these would come from is a question it is not easy to answer. Many would argue that there is no reason why the Government should be expected to subsidize legal education to this extent when it is only in theory that any serious faults can be found in the part-time system. So far legal practitioners, who are possibly the ones who would receive the greatest direct benefit from a scheme of full-time study, have shown little interest in supporting any such scheme — at least from a financial viewpoint.

The last problem is that of every University teacher, and stems directly from the lowered standards of secondary education which have become so noticeable in New Zealand in the last few years. It is elementary that anyone attempting a law course should be able to think, write and express himself with precision and clarity. Many law students coming into the Faculty now are mentally undisciplined. Worse than this, the standard of grammar and spelling would, in general, disgrace a Form III pupil of fifteen or twenty years ago. In some modern educational circles it is considered almost a crime to insist that a child perform unpleasant and uninteresting tasks, such as learning to spell. The child must be persuaded, not compelled, to learn. We are now reaping some of the fruits of the disastrously feeble policies of the pseudo-scientific educationists. Many first-year failures in the law course are not so much the fault of the student as the fault of his primary and secondary school teachers who have not insisted on some form of mental discipline from an early age. To a certain extent, therefore, the present-day law teacher finds himself obliged to supply some of the more elementary education which so many students now seem to lack.

In a broadcast talk just before the Dominion Legal Conference last year, a lawyer of some note remarked that Wellington was the seat of the Law School of the Dominion. 'What medicine is to the University of Otago', he said, 'Law is to the Victoria University of Wellington'. Victoria has retained this position since the first law lecture in 1899. In doing so it should be said that the Faculty has always had the friendly support of its students and Wellington practitioners. There is no reason to doubt that Victoria will continue to hold its place as 'Law School of the Dominion'.

B. D. Inglis