Report calls for ethics to be put at the heart of law degrees

Law students: ethics should be an extra foundation subject

The study of ethics should become a core element of the law degree, a report comm-issioned by the Law Society has recomm-ended.

The aim should be “to stimulate students to reflect on the nature of legal ethics, to equip students to behave ethically and to enable them to play an active role in the formation of professional ethics”, according to Andrew Boon at the Centre for Legal Profession and Legal Services at Westminster University.

Mr Boon was commissioned by the Law Society’s education and training committee to follow up a study it published last year that examined the place of ethical training the modern legal education and practice. That work, by academics Kim Economides and Justine Rogers, pushed for making legal values and the moral context of the law mandatory in undergraduate law courses. England and Wales is unusual in the common law world in not requiring this.

He said that if there is a move towards adopting a more outcomes-focused approach to the qualifying law degree – rather than the current prescription of certain “foundation” subject – then “legal ethics could play a central or overarching role”. But if the current approach is maintained, “legal ethics may only receive the treatment the Law Society thinks is required in degree courses if it becomes a foundation subject”.

The other foundation subjects are public law, EU law, criminal law, property law, equity and the law of trusts, and obligations including contract, restitution and tort.

Mr Boon sketched out a model ethics syllabus under seven heads: ethics and law; system ethics and the administration of justice; regulation of legal services; theory of professionalism; legal professions; professional regulation; and professional ethics.

He explained: “A curriculum that sought to indoctrinate students would be objectionable to most academics. In any event, bearing in mind the constraints and limitations on undergraduate legal education, it is not feasible to require that the initial stage provide sufficient practical experience to ensure that skills or good habits for ethical practice became habitual. Nor would it be feasible, at least initially, to require forms of assessment that attempt to verify the good character and positive motivations of students.

“Rather, the aim of the ethics curriculum at undergraduate level should be to establish clearly in students’ minds the institutions of the legal system, the values that underpin them and the professions’ roles in relation to them. This will provide the foundation for students’ understanding of, and commitment to, their own professional responsibility.”

The issue was debated at a recent symposium organised by the committee, at which the City of London Law Society was among those supporting the move to embedding ethics in legal training.

The Economides and Rogers report made a series of other recommendations, such as would-be lawyers taking some form of Hippocratic Oath, introducing an ethics assessment into trainee appraisals and consideration of requiring all law firms to have an ethics committee or ethics officers/partners.


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