Home' Be : Be Issue 12 Contents Legal view
Law education in Australia
needs a boost of innovation
and experimentation, writes
retired High Court Justice
Michael Kirby AC CMG
here is a natural tendency in human affairs to think
that the familiar is good; that the well-established
is better; and that the training that produced a
person as estimable as oneself, is best of all. it is
important that we, in the law, should be on our guard against
such self-satisfied thinking.
in this countr y, law programs are required to conform to
certain fundamentals, but they should also be prepared to
welcome new approaches to legal education. universities are
required to instruct in prescribed subjects and seek the approval of
statutory accreditation bodies, however within these parameters
there is room for experimentation and innovation. indeed these
qualities are essential if the tertiary sector is to meet the needs of
our future law yers.
My own legal education took place 50 years ago at the Law
School of the university of Sydney in 1959 -61, comprising instruction
by both academics and legal practitioners. at this time, in most
parts of australia, a large proportion of future lawyers were not
prepared for practice in universities at all. They received instruction
in professional courses, offered by both the Barristers’ admission
Board and the Solicitors’ admission Board. in fact, it was not until
1966 that systematic courses were offered.
Lack of access to law courses due to physical locality, costs
associated with the courses and possibly a stigma in the legal
fraternity regarding students’ educational background has played
a big part in isolating the profession for a select few. Studies of law
students in 1965, showed that only 32% had attended public schools.
This was despite the fact that, at that time, 70% of all students were
educated in such schools.
Professor John goldring’s survey in 1976 found that 42% of law
students had a relative or family friend who was a solicitor; 24% a
barrister; and 15% a judge. allowing for overlaps in these groups, the
social cohort entering law certainly did not then match society at
large. in my own case, althoughi attained very good resultsin the
school leaving certificate and attended selective public schools, i
found it ne xt to impossible to secure articles of clerkship.
it isbecause law is not an ordinary occupation, but one in which
the values of practitioners can influence the rules by which society
lives, that the intake of lawyers is a matter oflegitimate concern to
society and to fellow citizens. For most of my service on the High
Court of australia, i was the only Justice whose entire education
had been received in public schools. although more than 65% of
australians are still so educated, most of australia’s judges and
nearly all of the justices of the High Court of australia, have been
educated elsewhere. Such disparity could not but influence the
values that are reflected in judicial decision-making.
it is against the background of this understanding, as well as
recent developments affecting course content, that i welcome
the creation of the new law course at CQuniversity. within the
contours set by the applicable accreditation standards, it is desirable
that diversity should feature strongly in contemporary australian
i see a number of advantages in the new law course offered
by CQuniversity with its special feature of online instruction.
it provides opportunities to many who have previously been
neglected for such a career. Distance has often prevented regional
and rural students from considering law as a career, but with an
online program legal education can be accessible by all. it will also
prove easier to retain skilled, talented and qualified graduates in
However CQuniversity also faces a number of challenges. i
believe thought willneed to be given to how students willcope with
the lack of physical interaction with their teachers and peers. it is
difficult online to replace the vibrant, exciting and often emotional
contacts provided by participation in student societies. This is
particularly important as there is growing evidence that suggests
students, particularly law students, are more susceptible to stress.
isolation and lack of immediate or proximate support may add to
these pressures unless special initiatives are pursued.
Law is a special vocation. Potentially, it is a noble one. it is
concerned with order and justice in society. it is in the hope and
belief that this new law course will fill a space in australia in the
preparation of fine law yers for the future, i wish the students and
university well in the challenges that lie ahead of them. Those
challenges include building on the strengths of legal education
offered elsewhere, but adding new ingredients, so that the
law yers of the future in australia will serve their communities in
new and better ways.
Law launch: hon michael Kirby with law student Samantha
Shepherd, a mother of five children who said ‘something has
come alive in me since enrolling in this new law degree’.
retired high Court Justice michael Kirby AC Cmg officially
opened CQUniversity’s new Bachelor of Laws degree in may
2011. the above writings were taken from Justice Kirby’s guest
lecture on the day. the full video recording can be viewed at:
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