Cape Town - The Pietermaritzburg High Court has ruled in favour of the Independent Institution of Education’s LLB degree and has given Minister of Justice and Constitutional Development Michael Masutha one year to change the Legal Practice Act.
The ruling means that law graduates from private colleges are just as qualified to enter the legal profession as their counterparts from public universities.
The ruling in favour of the IIE has significant implications for registered and accredited private higher education institutions in South Africa.
On Friday, Acting Judge (AJ) Carol Sibiya found that students studying towards the IIE’s LLB degree at Varsity College were qualified to enter the legal profession after graduation.
Varsity College is a brand of the IIE, whose other brands include Vega and Rosebank College.
In passing judgment, Judge Sibiya declared section 26 (1) (a) of the Legal Practice Act (LPA) constitutionally invalid insofar as it only allows LLB graduates from public universities to enter the profession and precludes students from private institutions from doing so.
The ruling, which still has to be ratified by the Constitutional Court, was suspended for one year to give Masutha the opportunity to change the problematic sections of the act.
The matter, which was brought by the IIE and opposed by the KZN Law Society, sought to have the offending section declared invalid. It arose last year following a query by a parent of a student at the Varsity College to the KZN Law Society.
The Law Society’s response was to say that only graduates from “universities” could be permitted to become candidate attorneys and therefore the IIE’s qualification would not be recognised for this purpose.
Judge Sibiya said she could find “no rational basis” for differentiating between persons with an LLB degree, particularly given that the Council for Higher Education (CHE), the highest educational authority in the land, confirmed that there was no difference in the quality and outcomes of the IIE’s four-year LLB and that of public universities. She found that the distinction created by Section 26 was an unnecessary and unjustifiable limitation to entry into the profession.
The IIE’s LLB degree was accredited by the CHE in 2017 and was offered for the first time last year.
The judgment ends a period of anxiety for more than 400 law students and for the IIE, which was perplexed by a seeming conflict between the Higher Education Act, through which degrees at private higher education institutions are deemed equivalent to those from public universities, and the LPA that drew a distinction.
Commenting on the ruling, IIE director Felicity Coughlan said: “We were always confident of our position. However, the uncertainty that existed in the law created a great deal of unnecessary consternation for our students and their parents."
African News Agency (ANA)