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Diploma in Legal Practice

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The Diploma follows a normal academic year, i.e. from October until May. The Law Society prescribes the national curriculum in the form of the courses, and provides national materials for use on these courses, but the actual delivery, teaching method and assessment is left up to the institutions. Most universities favor an emphasis on skills, presuming that the students have acquired a reasonable level of knowledge of the substantive law in their undergraduate years and are now ready to learn about the practical application of that knowledge. The teaching of the Diploma in all universities is largely carried out by practicing solicitors and advocates acting as part-time tutors. This has a number of advantages, including giving students ready access to solicitors and potential recruiters, and allowing them to learn from those working at the sharp end of the profession. As well as the teaching on the Diploma being largely carried out by practitioners working within the law schools, practitioners also undertake the assessments and examination of students in conjunction with the internal examiners at the respective law schools. The profession therefore has, historically, had a very great input into and influence on the Diploma.

As at the date of writing there has not been any difficulty in securing a Diploma place. A more decisive factor in determining whether or not a student proceeds to the Diploma may be the availability of a funded place. The Scottish Awards Agency currently provides 300 postgraduate grants each year to diploma students. The grants are distributed by the Scottish Diploma Coordinating Committee, a body made up of representatives of all the law schools, the Law Society of Scotland and the Faculty of Advocates. Allocation to students is on the basis of academic merit and, as the Diploma is a step en route to becoming a solicitor or advocate, it is a student's performance in the Law Society prescribed subjects that provides the primary criterion for determining academic merit. Each student's results in the Law Society subjects are compared, and those with the highest grade point average are awarded a grant. Other factors, such as honors classification, weight of curriculum, prior degrees, and personal circumstances that might have depressed performance, are taken into account as well. As with all aspects of legal training, competition is intense and those students with a weak performance in the professionally required subjects are unlikely to receive a funded place. Once a student has been awarded a grant the Scottish Awards Agency will determine the level of the grant. That element is means tested and some students only receive a grant to cover the fees. Students who need top-up financial support may be able to negotiate a career development loan or find paid part-time work.


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Funding in the proposed new Diploma in Legal Practice

The funding position beyond few years is unclear with regard to the proposed new Diploma. Considerable efforts have been made to seek assurances from the government that the current level of funding of the Diploma, i.e. 300 grants, will at least be sustained in the new course. However, undoubtedly there are question marks over whether that will be possible. The arguments that the universities are making for retaining funding is that, without it, students from less privileged backgrounds will be unable to afford the fees and will be prevented from entering the profession. While this is of course bad news for the individual student, it is also damaging to the general public if the overall composition of the profession reverts to being drawn from a narrow background. A profession benefits from a diverse and varied make-up. For too long the legal profession was criticized for having a composition that was essentially white, male, middle-aged and middle-class. There remain concerns about the level of under-representation of ethnic minorities and of women, particularly in the higher echelons of the profession. Restricting funding for diplomats will discourage the social mix essential to a thriving profession.

Irrespective of the level of state funding that might be available for the new Diploma, it is certain that the fees will increase. At present the fees charged for the Diploma are similar to the standard postgraduate fee set annually by the Scottish Awards Agency. It tends to rise annually in keeping with inflation. Because the new Diploma will be more heavily skills-based, which is particularly demanding of tutors' time and other resources, it will be more expensive. The cost of the TPC has not yet been fixed. Another issue which has also to be settled is who will bear the cost of the PCC and/or the TPC. One view is that the training firms (Le. those firms that take trainees) should be encouraged to pay the cost of both courses. This would be on the basis that they are ultimately gaining the benefit from the productivity of the trainee solicitor. Others take the view that the trainees themselves may have to bear the cost, particularly if they are in training with a small firm or a firm that operates within tight financial margins. Between those two extremes there are also views that suggest that both the firms and the trainees should split the cost, or that all firms in Scotland, whether or not they take trainees, should be asked to pay a levy to support the cost of training future members of the profession.

In 1998 the Centre for Professional Legal Practice at the University of Dundee conducted a random survey of firms to find out whether there would be any support for sponsorship of trainees through part or the entire Diploma course. There was very little positive reaction to this proposal, which is a common financial arrangement in England. There, many of the big firms compete to recruit the best graduates and one of the factors which they use in the recruitment process is sponsorship throughout the bridge training period prior to entry to in-office training.

The Diploma does not have an indefinite shelf life. Technically the Law Society regulations state that a diplomat has two years from the January 1 in the year following completion of the Diploma within which to commence a traineeship. In practice, though, given the difficulty some diplomats' experience in obtaining a traineeship, the Law Society is usually prepared to waive the regulation provided the applicant can show that they have been actively seeking a traineeship, have undertaken relevant work experience and have been keeping their knowledge of the law up to date.


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