September 18, 2021

Canadians enrolled in overseas law schools during pandemic fear degrees won’t meet accreditation here

In the middle of the global pandemic last September, Afrooz Niakouei accepted an offer from a law school in the U.K. only after the Canadian accreditation body agreed to accommodate online learning toward her certification to become a lawyer in Canada.

Like other Canadians who are enrolled in accredited law school programs overseas, the Vancouver woman thought the global health crisis would be over within a year and students could then travel and continue school in person on campus.

Now, halfway through her two-year law degree program at the University of Leicester just as the U.K. is battling a resurgence of COVID-19 cases, Niakouei was shocked to learn Canada’s National Committee on Accreditation will make no further accommodation to pandemic learning in her upcoming school year.

“Ninety-nine per cent of these students chose to study remotely from Canada last year because it was very unsafe to travel to the U.K.,” said Niakouei, who has a Bachelor of Science in psychology from the University of Victoria.

“Most of us would have deferred our degree to the next year or the year after.”

The NCA is part of the Federation of Law Societies of Canada with a mandate to assess the legal education and experience of people who receive their legal credentials outside Canada and hope to practise law here.

In normal times, accredited overseas programs must offer their instruction fully in person. In 2020, due to COVID-19, the accreditation committee relaxed its rules by requiring just one year of the program to be delivered in person.

Some law schools abroad like Leicester do offer a two-year degree program, but their graduates must write a minimum of seven exams to make up for the shorter length of their legal studies upon their return to Canada or complete a master’s degree in law at York University’s Osgoode Hall, the University of Toronto or the University of British Columbia.

Although that pandemic requirement has remained unchanged for this coming school year, it means those who started their program last year on remote learning in Canada must now attend classes in person abroad in order to meet the requirement they need to work toward their licensing here.

The policy will not only impact the returning Canadian law students in the U.K., but also their peers enrolled in accredited programs in other countries, said Troy Lavers, a Canadian law professor at Leicester.

Accredited by the NCA for 14 years, Leicester’s law school alone has 300 Canadian students, and half of them will start their second and final year on Oct. 1. Lavers said the university and other schools in the U.K. have unsuccessfully raised this issue to the Canadian body.

Lavers said the school’s teaching plan — a blend of online recorded lectures and small in-person tutorials — was rejected by the NCA in early August, and students are “in flux” at the moment, unsure what to do.

“Having 500 people in a lecture theatre is not very safe. If you’re doing up to 10 hours in the lecture theatre a week, that’s a lot of people crammed into a lecture theatre,” she said in an interview.

“We’re always saying next year when it comes to COVID. Hopefully next year things might be more stable and we can return to in-person lectures without the same level of concern of variants and risk that we have today. But you just don’t know what’s going to happen.”

In response to a petition by a group of Canadian law students enrolled in a foreign program, NCA’s executive director Deborah Wolfe said the accreditation committee is well aware of the challenges faced by all students during the pandemic.

But in-person learning is necessary, she said, because the practice of law is an interpersonal endeavour.

“Problems are solved through interactions with others: clients, lawyers, witnesses, office staff, judges, and others. Some of these interactions may be written, but many of them are oral, and involve understanding how to deal with a person face-to-face,” she explained in an email.

“Lawyers typically discuss legal problems with other lawyers. They need to understand how to do that. Those interactions involve legal problem solving and oral persuasion. The law school experience — involving face-to-face interactions with instructors as well as students — models that experience.”

Wolfe didn’t respond to the Star’s request for comment.

Lavers, who has taught at Leicester since 2002, said the law school has brought up to the NCA the fact that those interpersonal actions don’t happen in big lecture halls and the small in-person and intimate tutorial sessions should satisfy that accreditation requirement along with the articling experience at law firms.

“They feel that the in-person requirement should include all teaching. And we don’t see that in this day and age in the middle of a pandemic,” she said. “We don’t see that as a logical kind of reasoning. We worry that it’s going to put people at risk.”

Niakouei said students have asked the NCA to allow them to do at least one more semester online, with the hope that the fourth wave of COVID-19 will go away and everyone can start school on campus in January. Or, she said, it could simply require more bridging exams for those who have no choice but finish their law degree online.

“It’s not that we wanted our whole degree (completed) online. It’s not ideal for any student because we obviously won’t get that on campus experience at all,” noted Niakouei, pointing out that the NCA itself only resumed its partial in-office operations on June 30.

Niakouei, who paid $26,000 a year in tuition to attend Leicester, said she and others are hoping the accreditation body will have a change of heart or they may have to put their education on hold for a year.

“This situation is completely out of our hands. We don’t have any control over what’s going to happen with this pandemic,” she said. “They just need to be more flexible and make some exceptions for the final-year students.”

Nicholas Keung is a Toronto-based reporter covering immigration for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @nkeung

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