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Law society considers Lakehead law school proposal

|Written By Helen Burnett

The Law Society of Upper Canada has voted to defer its decision on the proposal for a new law school at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, Ont. while it advises the school of some of its specific concerns with the proposal.

Fred Gilbert says Aboriginal groups and the Country and District Law Presidents’ Assoc-iation approached Lakehead about setting up a law school.

Last year, Lakehead put forward a proposal for the creation and accreditation of the first new law school in Canada since the University of Calgary in 1979, noting it had been approached by officials from the Nishnawbe-Aski Nation and the County and District Law Presidents’ Association to consider developing a law school in the north.

The proposal said the school would focus on aboriginal law, access to justice in northern and rural communities, decreased access to the profession for students from northern Ontario, and the decline of participation in sole and small firms in the area.

The new law school is hoping to have its first intake of students in September 2008.

Lakehead president and vice-chancellor Fred Gilbert told Law Times, “While it is viewed as a Lakehead University initiative, we’re just responding to interest outside the university that actually caused us to move on this particular degree.

“The interest of Aboriginal Peoples that is reflected in our proposal was one of the elements that prodded us into moving in this direction, plus some of the interest of the local judiciary and members of the bar. So it caught us a bit by surprise, but we have responded and we think that there’s definitely a need for what we’re proposing and I think at the end of the day, the rationale is fairly strong.”

Lakehead noted in its proposal that the law school would begin with a full-time teaching staff of three, including the dean, and would fill other positions through teaching arrangements with other Ontario law schools and with lawyers in northwestern Ontario who have expressed an interest in teaching courses at the school.

However, last month, law society benchers said they applaud the goals of the proposed law school, but one of Convocation’s main concerns with the Lakehead proposal is that it doesn’t seem the university has engaged in any “meaningful discussions” yet with either the other law schools or the Council of Law Deans about the feasibility of a northern Ontario law school. Because of this, Convocation said it was unsure how the school could state that its faculty needs would be met by other law schools in the province.

Bencher Laurie Pawlitza, chairwoman of the professional development, competence, and admissions committee, said it was not the law society’s role to approve the creation of the law school, but that it has the responsibility for determining whether it will accept the degree without the graduates requiring any further accreditation. The decision to approve the law school itself lies with the Ontario Ministry of Training, Colleges, and Universities.

Another potential problem, according to the committee, is that the school is hoping to place students in co-operative placements and articling positions in the north, but it notes that research into these placements may not have been “thorough enough.”

The school surveyed 123 law firms in Northwestern Ontario about law firm support for placements and received responses from approximately one-third of firms, which it says demonstrated “significant support.” However, the committee questioned whether those who didn’t return the survey could be credited with being interested in placements and that the students would each require two placements, which would double the number needed.

“The committee is of the view that it would be premature for the law society to indicate whether a bachelor of law program and an LLB degree conferred on graduates of a law school at Lakehead would meet requirements for admission to the licensing process in Ontario,” said the committee.

Gilbert said, “We are pleased that it’s finally made it to Convocation. We think that the issues that they brought forward are ones that we can fairly easily respond to.

“We think that it’s moving along, and these are reasonable questions to be posed and we will respond and hopefully it will have action on it at the March meeting,” he said.

He said Lakehead’s vice-president academic has been consulting with some of the deans and with other vice-president academics at other Ontario universities with law schools. He also said articling positions are not an issue and there is significant interest in taking on articling students in the area, according to survey work and data conducted by the university.

Gilbert said the input deadline for the Ministry of Training, Colleges, and Universities has now passed, and so they assume that the ministry is reviewing the proposal as well. He added that they expect to hear back from the ministry within a month.

The school is still hoping for its first intake of students for fall 2008, although Gilbert said, “We’re getting fairly tight in terms of getting a dean on board to allow all the finalization of faculty hiring and curriculum and all of that, and advertising for 2008. But we’re still within the timeframe that it could happen.”

In addition to deferring the decision on the Lakehead proposal, the law society has also decided to review its requirements for law programs, which were last reviewed in 1969, after the committee said they were outdated and do little to assist those universities interested in opening law schools to “understand what is necessary to establish a faculty that will produce an approved law degree.”

Convocation also voted not to consider any new proposals for law schools in the province until after it completes its review. Other than the Lakehead proposal, which is already under consideration, benchers said there were at least two other Ontario universities that had expressed an interest in establishing a law school.

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