Open Eye: Opening Courtroom Doors

A prisoner and a prison officer at the same jail are just two of the 700 students on the OU's new law programme. For those who want a legal career, the course can provide the first steps towards entry into the profession
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The Independent Online
The law is a conservative profession. But the winds of change may soon be blowing through the world of wigs and gowns, thanks to a new initiative by the College of Law and the Open University.

This year they jointly launched the first undergraduate programme to allow people to gain a qualifying law degree, the first step on the road to a legal career, through part time, open learning study. The aim is to open up the legal profession to a wider range of social backgrounds. This is a goal dear to the heart of Dr Gary Slapper, the legal academic appointed by the OU to direct its first law teaching programme.

"From the beginnings of our legal system, say the last one thousand years, law practitioners have been drawn from a very narrow social band," he says.

"In some respects there has even been a step backwards over the past 20 years, since nearly all local authorities have stopped giving grants for the vocational stage of training. It will be very exciting to see what happens when the varied social group now studying with the OU goes on from the degree stage to other things."

There are around 700 students on the new course, Understanding Law , the first of a total of four planned courses which, taken together, will form the core of the Qualifying Law Degree. This type of degree is recognised as the first stage in training for a legal career, as either a solicitor or barrister. The second, vocational , stage is law school, followed by the final professional phase undertaken working for a legal firm.

The courses are written at the College of Law, and the tutoring is done by the OU along its usual lines. They are based on supported open learning, designed for home-based students studying in their spare time.

The College of Law has guaranteed every student who achieves the Qualifying Law Degree through the OU a place on its vocational training course for solicitors, which can also be undertaken part time. But it stresses that successfully completing the vocational stage does not guarantee entry to this highly-competitive profession, as trainee lawyers still have to find a law firm at which to complete their professional training. But there seems no doubt that a new type of legal student is already emerging.

Gary Slapper said: "On the law course this year we have people from 18 to 82 - the average age is 35 - people with life experience, and from a varied range of backgrounds. There are GPs, vets, headmasters and teachers - people for whom a knowledge of law is an increasingly important part of their working life. And there are people who already use the law in their professional capacity - local government officers, civil servants, Customs and Excise employees, lay magistrates."

Although 75% of these students say they are seeking a legal career, by no means all want to become practising lawyers. A knowledge of law can be useful in the workplace and daily life, in different ways. Among the current students are two who are studying in the same prison - one an officer, the other an inmate. A law degree is also a recognised route into a range of professions, including the civil service, banking, insurance and the corporate world.

A few, of course, study purely for pleasure - as a subject bound up with so many aspects of life, law has a fascination for many people. But because law courses receive no government funding they cost substantially more than the normal OU undergraduate fee. Some students have persuaded their employers to sponsor them.

Gary Slapper believes that in the long term the OU programme will make a real difference, changing the social composition of the legal profession and spreading a knowledge of law more widely in society

"Because the OU teaches large numbers and because students tend to be people who are successful and competent in what they do, the OU can have a very significant influence. Take psychology. Over the years, graduates of OU courses have come to dominate the professional arena and have had a significant influence on the practice of psychology in the UK.

"Practices like judges wearing 17th century costume, and the use of Latin, which have been swept away elsewhere, have remained in the law largely because of its social exclusivity. When many of the current students start becoming lawyers, significant changes will be made."

To achieve the Qualifying Law degree, students without any previous university- level study behind them (or equivalent level courses which can be credited) will need to take at least two further undergraduate-level courses, rated at 60 points each, in addition to the four law courses, to obtain a full degree. These further courses can be in an unrelated subject. One-third of the students on the current law course already have a degree. They need only do the four law courses to get a qualifying law degree.

Further details from 01908 6533231 or your regional OU office. Law can be found on the web at http://oubs.open.ac.uk/law.

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