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Staffing the Judiciary: Transforming Legal Education to Reboot Justice

This article was originally published at pravda.com.

Ivan Shemelynets, an expert on legal education, DEJURE foundation.

Last year, in November, the European Commission recommended opening negotiations on Ukraine's accession to the EU. At the same time, it released a report discussing the necessity of judicial and legal education reforms in Ukraine, emphasising the interconnectedness of these reforms. Indeed, the establishment of a robust judiciary requires a concurrent overhaul of legal education to ensure a qualified workforce for the task.

In 2020, legal education reform was identified as a distinct agenda item in the Government's Activity Program, yet substantial advancement has not materialised since then. Despite endorsement from the Parliamentary Committee on Education, Science, and Innovation, the concept of the development of legal education was never approved. Colleges and police universities persist in producing lawyers; however, the standards for admission have stagnated or, in certain instances, regressed.

Nonetheless, there have been certain achievements. In late November 2023, the Unified State Qualification Exam for master's degree graduates in law was successfully administered — a pivotal component of legal reform. However, there remains room for improvement. The exam necessitates further refinement, including the development of higher-quality test materials, the establishment of transparent and lucid assessment criteria, and the setting of reasonable threshold scores.

Ministry of Internal Affairs and Ministry of Internal Affairs: legal education and police training

It is necessary to halt the practice of training lawyers within police universities, which operate under the jurisdiction of entities like the Ministry of Internal Affairs and the Security Service of Ukraine. Currently, these institutions account for a third of all legal professionals in Ukraine and receive roughly half of the state funding allocated for bachelor's-level law programs. However, instead of fostering critical thinking skills, students are often subjected to a curriculum focused on obedience, prioritising marching over intellectual development.

Moreover, these universities churn out a high volume of lawyers for the general market. At the same time, civilian educational institutions have recently introduced programs for speciality "Law Enforcement Activity." This dichotomy fails to enhance the quality of training for either specialisation, resulting in an imbalance within the higher education system.

Low standards - weak applicants

The current admission criteria for law faculties lack the efficacy to guarantee the enrollment of capable and driven candidates. In 2023, admission to contract training was notably relaxed, with the required competitive score reduced from 140 to 120, and the option to bypass state independent exams remained available. Additionally, the threshold points for the Unified Professional Entrance Test are inadequately low, failing to filter out applicants with insufficient knowledge levels.

In 2023, less than 2% of applicants who participated in the law test failed to meet the minimum threshold, equating to just 172 individuals out of 9,892. Consequently, there is a pressing need to bolster the requirements for applicants in both law and international law fields.

The matter of licensing law schools remains unresolved. Although a draft Resolution of the Cabinet of Ministers was presented for public discussion in July 2022, its current status remains unclear, including whether it was ultimately adopted.

Studying on a budgetary basis

State funding for lawyer training is currently dispersed across various institutions. Given that lawyers undergo training within higher education institutions, managed not solely by the Ministry of Education and Culture, the allocation of funds is consequently distributed among all governmental entities.

Meanwhile, the allocation system varies considerably. Within the Ministry of Education, state funding for lawyer training is distributed through broad competition among educational institutions. Conversely, in the framework of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, the Ministry of Justice, and the Security Service of Ukraine, universities are granted a predetermined number of state-funded seats.

Applicants to these institutions do not compete on equal terms for state funding with other applicants, which does not guarantee that the strongest ones will join the university. Obviously, this needs to be reviewed and changed.

No to plagiarism

There is an imperative need to establish a robust integrity system within higher education institutions and to formulate an appropriate legal framework to eradicate corruption and uphold integrity standards. The proposed legislation, "On Academic Integrity," currently under development by the Parliamentary Committee on Education, Science, and Innovation, aims to broaden the scope of regulating various aspects of academic integrity. This includes expanding the definition of violations, diversifying methods of addressing offenders, and implementing additional measures to safeguard academic standards.

Separate issues of fighting corruption in higher education have already been included in the State Anti-Corruption Program for 2023-2025.

Not quantity, but quality

Another pivotal measure involves streamlining the network of educational institutions. This matter is already a focal point in all strategic documents, notably the Higher Education Development Strategy for 2022-2032. The Ministry of Education has taken a proactive step by drafting legislation aimed at bringing all universities under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Education, except those managed by other state entities such as the Ministry of Internal Affairs, the Security Service of Ukraine, and the Ministry of Justice. However, this draft law contains several contentious provisions and thus requires thorough revision.

The European Commission's report underscores the imperative to modernise educational curricula, placing a strong emphasis on ethics, practical training, and EU law. Central to this endeavour are law schools, which bear primary responsibility for developing and implementing educational programs and, particularly, staffing the judiciary.

Ukrainian authorities must heed the calls of their European counterparts and proactively undertake reforms in legal education. This is crucial for advancing the rule of law in Ukraine. While these tasks are ambitious and will necessitate time and collaboration among stakeholders, they represent the sole pathway to revitalising legal education, addressing long-term staff shortages, and fostering the rule of law in Ukraine.