Statutes exam scrapped after complaints from Nunavut Law Program grads sparks outcry

Students who were to sit for exam will be refunded, as well as those who took it in May

Statutes exam scrapped after complaints from Nunavut Law Program grads sparks outcry
Statutes exams have been scrapped after complaints by Nunavut Law Program grads sparked an outcry

September 9 is the day Nunavut Law Program students were supposed to take a closed-book examination on the statutes of the territory. Instead, those slated to write the test will be refunded their fees, as well as the group who took the exam last May.

In addition, the Law Society of Nunavut has scrapped the exam requirement for now and will not administer the test “to any other applicant for admission to the bar” until next March, at the earliest.

“To be clear, NLP graduates will not have any such requirement reimposed for the admission process.”

The decision comes after students in the program, run through the University of Saskatchewan, asked to remove the “burden” of the closed-book exam in addition to the “ordinary requirements” for being called to the bar. The student’s request was supported by members of the bar, as well as the public who sent letters regarding the admission process.

“The Law Society has carefully considered the feedback provided and is immediately waiving the requirement for NLP graduates to complete the Statutes Examination,” says a statement issued on Aug. 31 and signed by society president Lauren Shadley. It also “recognizes the special training that NLP graduates have received through their education, articling experience, and [Canadian Centre for Professional Legal Education] CPLED training,” along with those who have already completed the statutes exam.

A letter that was circulated earlier this summer among Inuit and Nunavut professionals with law degrees, sent to the law society, outlines some of the students’ concerns. It points out that:

  • All candidates have law degrees from the University of Saskatchewan, have completed twelve months of articles approved by the law society, and have successfully completed the CPLED + PREP Bar Admission program, including four days of examinations on practice issues and ethics.
     
  • The Nunavut Law Program consists of four years of law school, with degrees issued to NLP graduates by the University of Saskatchewan NLP degrees.
     
  • The previous statutes exam for articled students applying for licensure in Nunavut was an open-book test.
     
  • None of the other jurisdictions that have adopted CPLED + PREP require further examinations or qualifications to be licensed, except NWT, which has a statutes exam (but no dedicated NWT law degree).
     
  • Lawyers transferring into Nunavut from other jurisdictions, including new calls, do not need any study or testing on Nunavut law; they need only sign a declaration that they have read some listed statutes.

“There is no reason to believe NLP graduates who have completed all the ordinary requirements are anything but capable and competent,” the letter says. “Clearly, as a group they know more Nunavut law than any other applicants for admission and have already done more than the majority of law graduates across Canada.”

It also points out that the students are not asking for preferential treatment but simply asking “for removal of an additional and unfair barrier” to taking the oath in the territory.

“Nunavut needs these graduates. The Law Society should be supporting Inuit and Nunavummiut law students and lawyers, not obstructing them. It would be a shame to see these graduates not being able to fulfil their individual aspirations, whether that includes practicing in Nunavut or not.”

A separate letter dated Aug. 24, from Margaret Hollis, who practiced in Nunavut between 2003 and 2021 before retiring, says it is “cause for alarm” that several of the NLP graduates did not pass the recent statute exam.

“Graduates from a recognized law program who have successfully completed CPLED would be expected to have a high success rate at any final step. For one or two candidates to fail is a matter of concern. When that happens, it is appropriate to try to address the individuals' issues and get them back on track.

However, when more than one or two candidates fail an examination, especially a new examination, “that's a problem with the examination,” says Hollis, who was the main person who worked on the design of the Nunavut law society’s articling program in 2014. She continues to be involved as an informal mentor to students and junior lawyers in Nunavut.

“This problem is doing real harm to the NLP class, not just to the ones that wrote and failed,” Hollis’s letter states. “These graduates are subject to a novel and non-transparent process with high risk for losing everything they have worked for. This is not just a trend to monitor going forward, or a statistical anomaly. This is an ongoing harm.”

The original purpose of the Nunavut statutes exam was to facilitate mobility, Hollis says. Before the mobility agreements, a lawyer went to law school and articled in the province where they intended to practice. Transferring to another province meant going through the whole articling process again, sometimes with shortened articles.

However, Hollis says, as mobility expanded, the articling requirements were dropped. The statute exam remained to ensure incoming lawyers were familiar with the law of the jurisdiction. Over time, even that was dropped in favour of statutory declarations.

The situation is “all the more disturbing,” Hollis says, “because, when the articling system was redesigned around CPLED, it was on the understanding that CPLED would replace the statutes exam as a ‘bar admission exam’ for Nunavut law graduates.

Hollis also pointed to other shortcomings of the statutes exam process:

  • “Closed book exams are for things one should know by heart. Not even the most experienced and knowledgeable of lawyers rely on their memory of statutes; when details matter lawyers look things up.”
     
  • Formerly, an applicant could write the exam at a date and time agreeable to their invigilator, alone or in a small group as they arranged.
     
  • The materials do not disclose a passing mark. “Knowing the passing mark is an important factor in calculating how many questions might reasonably be skipped over, so how much time to allot per question.”
     
  • Not only is the passing mark not disclosed, but the protocol says the law society may change the passing mark at its discretion and without disclosure.
     
  • In contrast, lawyers transferring in from other jurisdictions no longer write any kind of exam but make a statutory declaration that they have read a list of statutes.
     
  • The new exam and its process seem to have been created expressly for the NLP graduates, who have studied Nunavut law for four years. “Every graduate of the NLP is more familiar with Nunavut law than every lawyer who makes that declaration, but the Law Society requires them to prove it, while a southern lawyer need merely read the statutes once.”

In short, says Hollis, “in addition to whatever problems with the exam itself may have caused the high failure rate,” the process itself is arbitrary and non-transparent.”

The law society statement says that while the exam is scrapped for now, it is committed to “consider the purpose and structure” of the statutes examination more broadly.

“The Law Society will continue to consider ways to incorporate Nunavut’s unique history, culture, and legal context in its bar admission requirements to make it more relevant and reflective of our community values.”

Nalini Vaddapalli, CEO of the lawsocieggt wrote in an email that the regulator's executive "has no further comments to add" to its statement but will continue to provide updates on its website "in due course."

A representative for students could not be reached for comment.

 

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