THE LEGAL FRONT
By JUSTICE ART D. BRION (RET.)
Only a week after the deadline for the filing of certificates of candidacy, election “news” already swamp the media. It’s more of a tsunami than anything else, with the fake and genuine news all mixed in. Lost in all these, it seems, are the critical concerns that our leaders should immediately mind for the sake of the nation.
Among these concerns is the enhanced regulation of legal education – the concern that over the years has always been in the backburner. Legal education had largely been left unsupervised (despite the proliferation of law schools) until 1993 when then Senator Edgardo Angara authored and secured the passage into law of Republic Act No. 7662, or the Legal Education Reform Act of 1993.
The law offered an opportune opening for the regulation of legal education and its purposeful direction-setting, yet the Legal Education Board that it established was not made operational until 16 years later (in 2009) with the appointment of its first Chairman (CA J. Hilarion Aquino) and the grant of its first budget (again through the efforts of the late Senator Edgardo Angara). Since 2016, the LEB has been under its 2nd chairman, former Dean Emerson Aquende.
With a measly budget, a plantilla staff of only four personnel, and a board that – for various reasons – has been perennially incomplete, the LEB has supervised the growing number of law schools in the country over the past 10 years.
To the two chairmen’s credit, the LEB established and implemented within this short period, policies, standards, and guidelines for the law program, among them, new model curricula, rules for refresher courses for Bar flunkers, rules for the grant of honorary law degrees, minimum standards for law libraries, limits on the grant of tuition fee increases, and rules on class suspensions of classes. It penalized law schools with 0% passing rates, closing down and downgrading at least 16 perennially non-performing law schools while allowing the opening of 25 promising ones. It even began an active law school inspection program, managing to visit almost all law schools during the two chairmen’s terms.
It likewise began regulating the teaching of law by prescribing and implementing a Master of Laws requirement for deans and law professors, and adopted a Code of Ethics for Law Professors for the law schools’ implementation.
Aside from protecting the interest of law students through its actions on fees and faculty qualifications, the LEB also sought to infuse quality and order on law school enrolment through the PhilSAT – the entrance exam requirement for students entering the law program. The board enhanced consultations with law schools and their students through actual law school visits, two Legal Education Conferences, and a National Law Students Consultation Conference.
With the appointment of two more board members (whose JBC appointment shortlists are now with the President), the board’s ranks shall be complete for the first time since it began its operations in 2009. The term of one commissioner, however, shall expire very soon. Chairman Aquende’s own term shall expire in January 2019, thus beginning another cycle of vacancies for the Board.
The periodical gaps in board membership and policy leadership are a weakness that the amendment of RA 7662 can remedy. Among others, the problem may be solved through a more open membership (the removal of the preference for former court justices as chairman but giving retired members of the judiciary a regular board seat); and the reduction from six to four of the number of regular members to be vetted by the Judicial and Bar Council. These regular members are the chairman and the representatives of the judiciary, the academe, and the law practitioners.
Thus, the ex-officio members consisting of the presidents of the Philippine Association of Law Schools (PALS), the IBP, and the Association of Law Students of the Philippines (ALSP), should no longer undergo the JBC process.
Instead of limiting board members to a single 5-year term, the amendatory law can provide for an extension for another term to take advantage of the experience gained in the first term. Board members should also be allowed a limited teaching load subject to the chairman’s approval, and provided with retirement benefits (as currently granted to members of the constitutional commissions and the JBC) to encourage qualified and experienced applicants to apply.
To address its current policy, budgetary and manpower limitations, the LEB should be given a substantial measure of independence from the CHED, in the way that the current NLRC is now simply “attached” to the DOLE. Thus, while the LEB’s budget falls within the general CHED budgetary structure, the LEB should be allowed to administer both its budgetary and administrative concerns independently. The amendatory law itself can provide for the organizational structure of the LEB administrative leadership.
The LEB has a 2018 budget of approximately P23 million (for one chairman, 5 commissioners, four plantilla personnel and MOOE) plus P8 million via congressional insertions. Interestingly, the Legal Education Fund, established as a continuing support fund to the LEB by RA 7662, has yet to be operationalized. It should now be set up and implemented based on an appropriation of P50 million per year for the next 10 years, starting from the effectivity of its charter’s amendment. The board’s financial flexibility will be greatly enhanced if it can use 20% of the fund’s annual interest for operational purposes.
The term of half of the current Senate is ebbing fast as the 2019 election draws near. But this is no reason not to consider the amendment of the LEB charter in the remaining months.
Many senators, congressmen, and even the President, the chief presidential legal counsel, and the executive secretary are all lawyers who should have the natural interest to improve legal education. In fact, the son of the late Senator Ed Angara (the Father of the LEB charter) is now himself a senator (Senator Sonny Angara). Through their collective efforts, there is no reason why the LEB charter cannot be amended before June, 2019.