Students slam French licensing material

A group of Ontario law students is up in arms over the Law Society of Upper Canada’s French-language licensing exam process, citing concerns over terminology and ambiguity of the exam materials.

The group of students, who completed the bar exams in French this year, say they were at a disadvantage because of inconsistencies in terms and differences in abbreviations in study materials and assignments, requiring that they cross-reference terms with English materials.

According to documents obtained by Law Times, a majority of students from Ottawa wrote to complain to the law society earlier this summer, and while they were sent a reply, received no offer of a solution. One licensing candidate, who spoke on condition of anonymity, says the law society seems to have “washed their hands” of the issue.

Time was one of the main disadvantages, say the students, as they note that they were required to read through the materials several times before referring to the English version to understand the meaning of certain terms, resulting in a higher workload.

The candidate says, “We would have to eventually revert to the English materials, so it makes studying difficult. It obviously shaves time off your study time as well.”

Other concerned students were apprehensive about coming forward to speak publicly. And, last year students completing the licensing process in French also had problems.

Following last year’s exams, which marked the first time the law society’s new licensing process was introduced, students also raised concerns regarding translation of French materials, a higher volume of pages to study compared with their counterparts writing the exam in English, and the overall disparity between francophone and anglophone students.

Several students who wrote the exams in English Law Times about problems with the system last year, including issues of communication, timing of the exams, and organizational problems.

According to our source, French students assumed the majority of the problems from the first year of the new licensing process would have been fixed, but says that looking back at the reports from last year, things seem to be the same.

In an e-mail to Law Times, Diana Miles, director of professional development and competence at the law society, says following the first year of the program, the law society “solicited and received helpful feedback from students” in three major areas.

This included the fact that students felt the exams should be held before the skills program to allow them more time to focus on exam preparation, the skills program could be shortened and time allotted for assessments and assignments was not adequate.

Miles says as a result of the student feedback, the program was improved this year. Students now write the exam prior to the skills program, which has been reduced to four weeks from five, and changes were made to “give instructors more time to give immediate and more extensive feedback on assignments.”

In response to the complaints this year, the law society told Law Times it is committed to providing instruction and materials in French to candidates pursuing the licensing process in Ottawa. The law society adds that it welcomes comments that may assist it in improving its processes and that it is continuing to work closely with the Association des juristes d’expression francaise de l’Ontario.

“It is important to remember that the current licensing process is a new one, only in its second year. Candidates are still getting used to the new components. Some candidates may feel anxious about the unfamiliar process and this could impact their perceptions of the materials and the experience,” says LSUC in a statement.

“Translation of legal information and knowledge is a very intensive activity and the results are never identical. That is the case for any translation from one language to another.

“The goal of the French and English licensing process is to ensure that candidates have the appropriate competencies to be called to the bar. The documents in French may be a translation from the English.

However, the law society reviews the materials annually to provide materials that will adequately prepare the candidates to write the exams. The current program has been in place for two years, and is consistently being improved. . . .”

The unnamed French student says the root of the students’ worries is that although a total of 95 per cent of students passed across the province in 2006, according to students, about 40 per cent of the 50 or 60 students who wrote the exams in French in Ottawa failed the solicitors exam this year.

“Our concern is that the French students are making up the five per cent of the fail.” While the source doesn’t know what this year’s pass rate was, he did note that many candidates were unsuccessful in passing the solicitor’s exam.

While questions where all students do not perform well are generally removed from the calculation of scores, students who wrote the exam in French argue that, as they are graded with over a thousand English students, the law society would not know if students scores were affected by an ambiguity in one of the French questions. The candidate noted that students were pushing to have the French and English exams graded separately.

According to the LSUC, “Candidate results are reviewed each year against previous results and against statistical analysis that are required on a per examination question basis as per our policies. The results on the examinations are exactly as expected from the entire candidate group and by designated groups. Questions that did not perform as expected were removed from the calculation of the scores.”

The success rate for francophone students for the 2006 licensing exams is just over 82 per cent, according to LSUC statistics but there’s no break down  for barrister or solicitor exams individually.

When asked for 2007 statistics, the law society says that this information is not usually made public, but that the results are “on par” with last year. Results were made public in 2006 as a result of the new licensing process, but are normally only reviewed by theprofessional development and competence committee.

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