First of all, there wasn’t a 71% fail rate at the last Bar Finals. The Council of Legal Education has provided a comprehensive breakdown of the results here. The truth is closer to a 50/50 split. Given that this rumoured fail rate was what led to the outcry and a call from several corners for the grading system at the Nigerian Law School to be reviewed, perhaps that should simply be the end of the matter.
However, as a corollary to the argument that high failure rates warrant a review of the system (or perhaps in conflation of the issues), there have also been arguments against the grading system that is supposedly used for the Nigerian Bar exams. I am tempted to call the system an urban legend because you won’t find it written anywhere. However, several tutors at the various law school campuses over the years have explained that a student’s final grade is usually the lowest score in any of the 6 exams written to qualify. In simpler terms, if the student is graded a 1st Class in 5 papers but scores a Pass in the 6th, the School will award him a Pass degree certificate. Allegedly. But we will assume that is the case for the purpose of this discussion.
Many have argued that this system is unfair, including my learned friend Orji Uka, here. I disagree, for the reasons that follow.
The sum of most of the disagreement seems to be that the system is unfair because it is unfair. How can it be fair to grade a student on the basis of his worst paper? Others have gone on to say that an average grading system is more reflective of the student’s ability, and that no other jurisdiction appears to grade law school students the Nigeria does. Mr. Uka’s article also echoes the sentiment that the exams put way too much pressure on students, with many not replicating the good grades they got at university (I dispute that, by the way).
Well, boo frickin’ hoo!
My take is that it’s a professional exam, for a profession in which people’s lives and futures are in your hands, where competence is the difference between a conviction for murder and one for unlawful homicide. I’d rather view the grading system as a quality assurance method for employers, separating the cream of the cream from the rest. If the system truly exists, then everyone who’s ever gotten a first class certificate at the Law School deserves immense respect. I also had a boss, Senior Advocate, who used to admonish “you’re only as good as your last mistake”. The real world is unforgiving and mistakes can be costly.
Secondly, again assuming the system exists, I don’t understand how a system that has been defined by a body of professionals and applied uniformly to the vast majority of the professional body can be unfair. Who is it unfair to? All law students past and present, those who passed and otherwise? At any rate, everyone learns about the grading system very early into the session, most even before the session resumes. You knew what you were signing up for.
Thirdly, the Council of Legal Education publishes a compendium of past questions and model answers. This is the most legal “expo” in the world!!! I bet very few of the foreign jurisdictions we’re comparing ourselves to do this. Furthermore, a large majority of the questions are repeated year on year. If you start with the compendium early enough, attend your classes and take notes, it should take sickness or personal tragedy to throw you completely off your game.
Fourthly, I do not think that the system disrupts university results to any degree of significance. I am fairly confident that most that leave the Law School with a first class were awarded either a first or a 2:1 at university. There are also some 2:2 university graduates that earn a 2:1 at Law School. However, very few 2:2s if any go on to earn firsts at Law School. I would say, from the evidence from my set and those immediately preceding and following, that people generally maintain their university standards at the Law School.
Fifth, the truth is that many get to the Law School and either lose their way, or think that university methods will work for them one last time. At university, there is the fallback of continuous assessment to rely on – and your exam would only count for 60% of your final grade. So, many could afford to leave studying until the month before exams. Anyone who tries this at the Law School is destined to fail. The work is more voluminous at the latter and the exams are stacked 6 days in a row. You simply cannot afford to leave serious studying till late, trysts at Amudolak Hotel notwithstanding. *Bwari Campus people know what I’m talking about.*
Finally, as long as we’re having a conversation, we might also want to talk about the standard of [legal] education in Nigeria. The reason why lawyers used to be called “The Law” with reverence , was because lawyers were renowned for speaking and writing proper English all the time, being widely read and knowledgeable, possessing impeccable manners and noble carriage, they were discreet and generally being better than allayou… (apologies to DavidO).
This is clearly no longer the case. When I was at the Law School, the civil procedure lecturer told how they had also included grammar in the marking scheme for the previous year, but had to ditch it because of it’s impact on pass rates. I would later find out that she was not exaggerating. Letters come in from the law offices of the more boisterous senior lawyers, and you simply wonder. I see many of my colleagues on social media trading barbs and descending into roforofo with other people online. These are all not good enough.
To conclude, I do not think a year of an unusually high failure rate should warrant revamping the whole system. I think the students should look inwards and urge anyone who is convinced they could not have failed to recall their scripts. If you go back to the statistics released by the Council of Legal Education, I think the fact that the bulk of the failures came from those taking either one paper or the entire exam again, supports my point of view.