In the Ceremonial Opening of the Legal Year held on 11 January, I reported the decision by the Council to implement a Common Entrance Examination (“CEE”). I am the third President to talk about it in succession at the Ceremonial Opening of the Legal Year but it was not until now that the topic received more media attention.
Since the Law Society introduced the concept of the CEE in 2012, a cacophony of views has been expressed, ranging from support and encouragement to caution and reservation to outright dissent. Some have suggested it be given as a post-training examination, while others erroneously claimed that the CEE would be used as a protection mechanism. Some wanted the CEE to be an alternative to the PCLL (and do away with PCLL entirely), and others suggested it was wrong of us to undertake the CEE and that it should never have been considered at all. In the end, we decided that starting from 2021, a person may only enter into a trainee solicitor contract if he or she passes a CEE, which will be set and marked by the Law Society. To accommodate PCLL students who wish to enter the solicitor’s profession, we will only require certified completion of a PCLL course, but will not require any examination to be set by the providers of the PCLL. In this way, these PCLL students will not be required to sit for two sets of examinations in quick succession.
To dispel any rumours, the CEE has nothing to do with any alleged protectionism or desire to artificially control the number of potential solicitors entering our profession. If this, indeed, were our intention (which it is not), there are much simpler ways to do so. Rather, we will continue to allow the market – the principles of supply and demand – to regulate the numbers.
Do we have vested interests in the outcome? Absolutely yes! The Law Society is the regulator of the solicitors’ branch of the profession. We have an obligation and a duty to ensure that those who enter our profession meet our high standards. The Court admits solicitors as Officers of the Court but before it does so, s. 4 of the Legal Practitioners Ordinance (Cap. 159) (the “LPO”) places a statutory duty upon the Law Society to prescribe the admission requirements for solicitors in Hong Kong. This is a duty the Council intends to uphold and defend.
Solicitors play a vital role in defending the fundamental values that ensure the fair administration of justice. There is absolutely no room for any compromise with respect to professional standards as any gap, however narrow, may put the public at risk.
The Trainee Solicitors Rules made under the LPO prescribe the necessary admission requirements. Rule 7 of the Trainee Solicitors Rules provides that:
“A person may only enter into a trainee solicitor contract if he -
(a) has passed or received a certificate of completion or a certificate of satisfactory completion as the case may be in ….
(ii) such other examination or course as the Society may require and set or approve; …”
The Law Society is empowered (and has indeed been so empowered since 1981, without seeking permission from any other person or institution) to set and/or approve an examination for anyone wishing to enter into a trainee solicitor contract.
PCLL was first introduced in 1972 by The University of Hong Kong. At the time, they had about 35 to 40 PCLL students per year. Now, we have three law schools with around 700 PCLL students per year, and around 550 trainee solicitors’ contracts are signed per year. Given the increase in the number of law schools and the development of legal education landscape over the years, the Law Society will fail in its duty if it does not constantly keep the standards issue under review and utilise the power given to it by statute to meet these challenges – challenges that change with time, with society, with needs and with what the profession and the public expects of us.
Hong Kong law firms are at the receiving end of the bulk of PCLL graduates entering into the solicitors’ profession and these member firms have been raising serious concerns about the lack of consistency in the standards of the entrants. Although the Law Society sets benchmarks for the three law schools to follow and our members act as external examiners, each provider teaches, tests and grades its own examinations differently.
We have undertaken a thorough process of research, discussion and consultation with all relevant stakeholders, including our members, the PCLL providers, the barristers’ branch of the profession and other professional bodies. We also looked at benchmarks around the world to see what our counterparts do. Having done that, the Council considers it appropriate to invoke its power under Rule 7 of the Trainee Solicitors Rules to implement a common entrance examination.
The CEE is aimed at ensuring that solicitors have all been assessed to the same rigorous standard. This will improve consistency and enhance the quality and competence of the entrants to the solicitors’ profession thereby ensuring that the public interest is served and the confidence of the community in the profession is sustained. I cannot see any valid objection to our move towards this direction that benefits the future development of the profession.
For those who object to the CEE, why should the Law Society abrogate its duties? Why should our branch of the profession forfeit its autonomy to assess new entrants who wish to join our profession? At the time of writing, I have not yet received a clear answer.
I wish to reiterate and reassure you that we are not working alone. We are in constant dialogue with the three PCLL providers to work out the details about the CEE’s implementation. The PCLL providers will no doubt continue to play an important role in educating potential new entrants, which is why we have been discussing (and will continue to discuss) with them what their role will be. I welcome their cooperation in helping us shape the future of the solicitors’ profession in Hong Kong. I am confident that we can achieve a win-win situation for all parties.
For those who are interested in obtaining more details on the background and recent developments regarding the CEE, the Law Society has issued two press statements on 6 and 11 January, which are posted on the Law Society website (www.hklawsoc.org.hk).