12 September 2013

The facts should speak for themselves #nlpoli

The very best thing that may be said about the idea of a law school at Memorial University is that the proponents of the idea have failed to make their case.

The very worst is that the university is currently wasting everyone’s time by talking about something with no shape, no form, and hence no substance.

After all, the committee that held its last public meeting the other night  has the task – according to Memorial – of looking at “the demographics of existing Canadian law schools, current and future needs for more lawyers, and benefits to Memorial, among other goals.”

They needed to do this before they started “consulting”. 

Think about it for a second.  The committee is supposed to look at the need for a local law school.  That’s the essence of their brief.  If there is a need, then they can look at other issues such as financing. If there is a need and they can figure out a way to pay for it, then the proponents have their argument made.

So far no one has offered any indication that the province is facing a shortage of lawyers.  Nor is there any sign – former Chief Justice Clyde Wells’ plea notwithstanding – that the bright young people of our province are being denied their dream of going to law school because Dalhousie costs too much.

As the Telegram reported, Wells told one of the consultation meetings that “fundamentally,” a law school at Memorial “provides an opportunity for students in Newfoundland to have access to a legal education at a reasonable cost.”

That may be true.  Then again, it may not.  We don’t know  - and therefore cannot decide on the merits of his argument - because no one has done the work to demonstrate that it is so.  Res ipsa loquitur and all that.

Then there is the issue of what a “reasonable cost” is.  In the current situation, students in Nova Scotia can find a “reasonable cost” university education at Memorial.  It is one heavily subsidised by the people of Newfoundland and Labrador for absolutely no discernable benefit to the province at all.   

At the very least, Wells and others need to do the work to show that the law school will not pose an increased burden on the taxpayers of the province either through ever more public subsidies or by killing off other programs at Memorial.  We have seen this sort of thing already at the University of Alberta.  We do not need to repeat their mistake.

Wells’ successor as Chief Justice – Derek Green – wants a local law school in order to “give a broad legal education to people who want it, who may then use that legal education in a wide variety of ways.”  Fair enough.  That is a motherhood statement if ever there was one.  If there are enough people willing to pay the fees to cover the costs without increasing the burden on taxpayers, then they can  Paper Chase to their heart’s content.

Again, though, what seems to be missing in this comment is any simple evidence that they can run a law school at Memorial and have enough students to keep it going.  Motherhood, partridgeberry tarts,  and good intentions are not enough.

Broadly speaking, and entirely in general, in principle, it is a nice idea to want a law school in St. John’s.  Then again,  it would a nice idea to have a particle collider at Buchans so that some young girl in central Newfoundland can split atoms in her spare time, if she feels so moved. Maybe these are Wonderful Thoughts just as it is a marvellous notion to have a great tunnel joining the island to Labrador.

The problem always comes with these Great Notions when one tries to figure out if they make any practical sense.  That is where this idea of a law school may go up on the rocks.  Some others – noticeably young lawyers and law students among them – have pointed out the problems in finding enough work terms for the young law students.  There’s a practical issue.  It is not an unsolvable problem but it would be a hindrance. 

In many respects the people talking up the idea of a law school at Memorial are like the crowd who wanted to build another university in Corner Brook.  They even went so far as providing a bunch of consultant’s reports that described what you could do with a student population of a given size.  They just never identified where all those students would come from. 

The lawyers backing the idea of a law school could prove the merit of their idea with a simple brief based on facts and evidence.  In itself, simple information, presented simply would be the most persuasive argument for a law school here because it would embody the value of the sort of analysis and persuasion that comes from a legal education.

The facts ought to speak for themselves.

So far they are mute.