Jurists: Legal education could be concentrated in a single university

Elo Mõttus-Leppik
, Otse Postimehest saatejuht
Chairman of the Estonian Bar Association Jaanus Tehver.
Chairman of the Estonian Bar Association Jaanus Tehver. Photo: Remo Tõnismäe

Eight top Estonian jurists, including Chief Justice of the Supreme Court Villu Kõve, Chancellor of Justice Ülle Madise, Chairman of the Estonian Bar Association Jaanus Tehver and Prosecutor General Andres Parmas, have published a joint address saying they are not happy with the quality of legal education in Estonia and find that legal professionals should be educated in a single state university.

Chairman of the Estonian Bar Association Jaanus Tehver, what is troubling jurists?

The current legal education system cannot ensure sufficient quality and fails to meet Estonia’s needs. In short, the authors of the address find that the status quo in legal education cannot continue.

It is currently possible to study law in three Estonian universities: Tallinn University, the University of Tartu and the Tallinn University of Technology (TalTech). Your proposal is that Estonia should only fund teaching law in a single university in the future. Why?

High-quality legal education requires resources. The most important of which is human resource or highly qualified teachers with enough time to dedicate themselves to research and teaching students. Because this resource is inevitably limited, we need to ask ourselves how best to channel it in order to ensure quality education that corresponds with what Estonia needs. This is broadly the train of thought that has led to the proposal.

Could teaching law be concentrated at the University of Tartu?

Tartu is the most obvious choice, while it is by no means a guiding thesis or dogma that Tartu should be preferred to others. In the end, it is a matter of choice.

Could we interpret the address as a message to Tallinn University and TalTech that they should close their law curricula as they are unable to train professional jurists?

Anyone who draws that kind of a conclusion is mistaken. I want to emphasize that the problem of quality concerns all universities today. Tartu has no more reason to be satisfied, nor can we somehow paint it as an example and the others as lagging behind.

You write that less than half of people with a law diploma are capable of passing the professional exam of judges, attorneys, notaries, bailiffs and trustees in bankruptcy. How many of those who pass come from the University of Tartu and how many from elsewhere?

Most of those who pass the exam definitely come from Tartu. Most graduates also come from there.

Where has this downtrend in legal education its roots?

A certain impulse in the current direction was delivered years ago when the higher education funding model was reformed to introduce free higher education. Concerns over funding started mounting after that. That said, I do not think problems that warranted this address originated there. These tendencies have been around longer.

How difficult is it to find highly qualified teaches in a permanent state of subpar funding?

The problem is great indeed. It is extremely difficult to find a highly educated jurist to work as a law professor today. Curricula are largely determined by the level of teachers the university can hire. In other words, existing staff ends up dictating what gets taught. That is not a normal situation.

These problems also concern other disciplines.

Rather, the key is that law, unlike many other sciences, is decidedly state-centered. It is directly tied to a single country’s legal system. Its internationality is therefore very limited, which is what places law in a special context.

Do you agree with Prosecutor General Andres Parmas in that lawyers are better off than prosecutors as the latter must pit their modest budget against teams of top lawyers?

I cannot really agree because Parmas is referring to only a few exceptional cases where such situations might arise. What he forgets to mention is that, in most cases, people who go up against Andres’ team cannot afford to hire a lawyer at all, not to mention several or a legal team.

The accused can usually only afford a single cheap lawyer who might be unprofessional to boot?

It might end up like that.

How many lawyers do we currently have who are not up to scratch?

In truth, we lack a universal metric for who can be referred to as a lawyer in Estonia. Basically, there is nothing to stop a person from calling themselves a lawyer. That makes it virtually impossible to determine how many lawyers shouldn’t even work in the field.

One of your proposals is introducing a universal professional exam for law practitioners. Why do we need one?

The idea of a universal professional exam is to put in place a minimal professional level for institutions teaching law for the purpose of assessing the knowledge of graduates. The goal is to ensure the quality of legal education. From there, organizations – courts, prosecution, bar – can put in place more specific checks for professional qualification. However, it would designate a universal base and ensure a level playing field.

Master’s degrees of the three universities that teach law currently cannot ensure that level?

Largely not, whereas we do not even have concrete standards for curricula, making the latter incomparable.

We also have lawyers who have passed various professional exams but are at the heart of criminal investigations themselves. What effect is this having on law profession?

As chairman of the bar, it troubles me when lawyers have violated or are claimed to have violated legal norms. Perhaps we can attribute a part of this problem to the quality of legal education. Education and its quality are very important in ensuring that our legal system employs people who are dedicated and work in a way to benefit everyone and avoid doing harm.

What are your expectations for the prime minister, education and research minister and justice minister?

Above all, I expect them to admit we have a problem and support finding a political solution. Political will to do something about it is key. We have reached a point where the system will decay if we cannot feed it enough highly qualified people.

What kind of obstacles do you foresee?

The biggest obstacle is the possibility that the severity of the problem will not be recognized nor the will to make a change found. These are the biggest shallows. They are also the reasons we have come to where we are now. If we can overcome these two obstacles, I remain optimistic.