Tuesday, January 12, 2016

The economics of the Legal Practitioner's Bill 2015

Justice Minister Singhateh
We feel obliged to revisit issues surrounding the recently passed Legal Practitioner's Bill of 2015 so that Gambians can better understand its real intent and its impact on incoming and future graduating law students at the University of The Gambia.

In the absence of reliable data, especially as it relates to the number of graduates that are produced annually, we will not stray outside of the rudimentary principles of economics to help shed, not only on the economics of the Bill in questions but the politics of it that is primarily responsible for the plight of the current crop of the newly minted lawyers.

In stirring the Bill through the National Assembly, Mama Fatima Singhateh, the regime's Attorney General and Minister of Justice stated the reasons for the Bill was to "ensure a high standard of legal practice" but fail to state how which would have delved into the real intent.

The Bill requires a law student graduate to spend 5 years in pupilage (law training/attachment) with a law firm before he or she is a fully-fledged lawyer. After students petitioned National Assembly Members, the attachment period was reduced to 3 years. (In one radio program, I had mistakenly said the period was one year instead of three.)

The problem that this Bill intends to address is very real and illustrative of one of the reasons why the Jawara administration deliberately slow-walked the idea of establishing a university.  The strategy was allow the debate to proceed while the component parts of what is now the University of the Gambia were being build.

The strategy gave birth to The Gambia College (Brikama Campus), GTTI, MDI, Schools of Nursing and of Public Health, Rural Development Institute among others as fully functional learning/training centers, not only to provide better trained personnel for the civil and public services but also the private sector.  Entrepreneurial development to bolster the growth of the private sector was integrate part of project design.

The small size of the Gambian economy dictated caution in the training and management of the country's human resources.  Sir Dawda knew and appreciated the delicate balance that must be maintained the supply of and the demand for trained personnel for the economy as a whole i.e. both public sector and private sector employment.

Fast forward to the problem facing the Law Faculty.  The number of students being graduated at the Law (Faculty) School annually is clearly posing a great deal of problems for Yaya Jammeh who has exploited a perfectly rational university education policy by convincing many Gambians that Jawara was denying ordinary Gambians access to higher learning so that the elites can continue to run things. A false but potent argument.

The economy has been contracting for at least a decade due to Jammeh's bad policies - coupled with his persistent interference - which has adversely affected its job-creating capacity. The primary employer being government has been saturated with redundant civil servants.  The Attorney General Chambers in the Ministry of Justice which served as training ground for young lawyers since independence is no exception. It also has limited absorptive capacity.  The Judiciary faces a different set of problems which we have been addressing separately.

The private sector has been fairing worse with business failures at an all time high.  We can see the dilemma of the regime.  Jammeh has created  the environment that will make it nearly impossible to reverse course because of the open door policy of university admission with little or no regard for the consequences of uncontrolled supply of lawyers in a contracting economy.

The problem is supply driven because of Jammeh's success in politicizing education in general and university education in particular.  Now that the problem of mismatch of the supply of law graduates and the demand for their services in the public service, in particular, severely restricted, the regime solicited and found a willing partner in the Gambia Bar Association (GBA).

The GBA's support for and role in the passage of the Legal Practitioner's Bill is primarily driven by personal and industry interest.  Young lawyer being cut loose by the Law Faculty of the UTG to flood a market that is a nightmarish scenario that will further depress lawyer's fees.  At least, by keeping these new-minted lawyers in a law firm for three years and away from private law practice, the theory goes,  the regime and GBA will maintain some form of equilibrium.

The A(F)PRC has created this problem by politicizing education, from which they have greatly benefited.  It is true that education is a great equalizer but there is also something called controlled access at the university (small economies), graduate and post graduate/professional levels.

Because Jammeh and his minions have promised open and unfettered access university education at the expense of quality, he lacks the courage to restrict the supply by employing more stringent admission requirements.  Instead, he'd rather add three years of what amounts to babysitting time to law firms - an arrangement mutually beneficial to both government and the GBA but only in the short term.  The path chosen by Jammeh and Mama Singhateh may be easy but unsustainable one.  The fundamental laws of economics will force them or a subsequent government to revisit the same problem again.

NB:  These comments are generally applicable to the undergraduate program as UTG as well.  In fact, the consequences of a mismatch between supply and demand in an economy as small as ours are grave, if not graver because the number of students affected are greater.