10 January 2013

Uganda: How LDC Exams Leak - My Personal Experience


The Law Development Centre (LDC) has been in the news after The Observer reported in her January 4-6 edition that an official report had faulted the final examination results of at least 15 lawyers, among them two outspoken politicians, Mukasa Mbidde and Michael Mabikke.

Following our story, a former student (whose identity we are withholding) has shared his experience at LDC, revealing details of particular incidents in the 2010 academic year when examinations leaked, and how the institution's administration handled it. Read on:

At 11 o'clock in the night of one Sunday in August 2010 my phone rang - rather unexpectedly. I was in my room in Nana hostel, busy preparing for the last week of my final exams at the Law Development Centre (LDC). Aware that I had only one week of toil and I would cross the bridge from just being a lawyer to an advocate, I was taking every precaution to get things right.

We had just had a gruelling week of the smaller subjects - Legislative Drafting, Accountancy, Revenue Law and Taxation, as well as Professional Conduct - also called the 'trinity'. It contains three papers - Professional Conduct, Art of Advocacy and Judicial Conduct. I call it the 'trinity' because all three papers were handled in one exam.

Up next were the 'Big Five' - Criminal Proceedings, Commercial Transactions, Civil Proceedings, Land Transactions and Domestic Relations. Of these, the first two were the most dreaded: they accounted for more than 90 percent of retakes every year. The third - Civil - was exactly that: usually very civil to lawyers, except the really lazy ones. It was a middle ground.

The least respected were the last two. Nobody held you excused if you failed them. Domestic Relations was easily scoffed at by most lawyers at LDC, since it was supposed to be very easy. They called it 'Nigiina' - a Luganda word which we foreigners had no idea what it meant, but perfectly understood the term to be derogatory. Our Ugandan colleagues didn't have the time to babysit us into learning Luganda, they said. The short of it, they explained, was that if you failed

those two 'small' subjects, well, what were you doing in law school in the first place? Go be a plumber or carpenter.

As it turned out, both Land Transactions and Domestic Relations that year proved to be rather sticky. Many failed the exams- some even failed the retakes twice and got dismissed; a story for another day. At the other end of the phone was a lawyer in Kampala who had completed the previous year.

"I have the examination question paper for Commercial Transactions that you will be sitting on Tuesday," he said. "The price is five hundred thousand." I had met him before, because he wanted to learn Kiswahili; and I had given him a few lessons. He had assured me then that there was no way one would make it at LDC without 'help'.

I would have dismissed his phone call as possibly that of another conman, but he had confided in me that he himself had only passed the previous year after receiving such 'help'. And he was now offering me help. This wasn't a joke; it was real. I kept my cool and said I'd call him back. In my country we are fairly honest with exams; I was shocked that Uganda was proving corrupt even at the institution that trains advocates!

I rang one of the lawyers in my firm (class at LDC) and told him the story. Philip immediately called the Head, Commercial Transactions, Mr. Patrick Mugisha (PMM we called him) and told the story. PMM - a very intelligent and excellent lawyer whom students loved and respected - was cautious and wondered how in the world his paper could have leaked. He assured Philip a leak was highly unlikely.

When we showed up for the Commercial Transactions exam on Tuesday, we went heavily 'armed', with all kinds of books and documents. LDC exams are all 'open book'; you can carry in any material you want if you think it will help you answer the questions. The only exception is photocopied class notes and model answers to past papers. We were fairly familiar with PMM's mode of setting questions - usually lots of questions which require endless drafting of documents.

Extremely taxing questions that always sent kids crazy. To our surprise, the mode had completely changed. There were just two questions, on two sheets of paper. Very brief exam indeed, but, as it turned out, very tortuous. The first was a narrative which needed one to be very sharp to discern the legal issues for determination since it was capable of being interpreted four or five ways.

No documents would be needed, but you had to be on top of your game to make your arguments. The other question was short and needed just a brief explanation and drafting a couple of documents, but you had to be familiar with what you had done in the very first weeks of LDC. Thissuggested that PMM, not willing to take chances, had set another paper. In the end, it claimed very many casualties.

Very early the following morning, as I prepared for the Civil Proceedings exam, my former girlfriend (we had dated for two terms before falling out during clerkship) walked into my room. No, she was not asking for another chance at the bungled relationship. She needed help.

"Do you know what a gag order is?" she asked, desperate. She had never heard of it. I explained that in the legal sense, it was an order by court forbidding the media from publishing certain information for a particular period, often (but not always) because it would prejudice court proceedings. I explained the procedure and documents necessary for securing a gag order. Relieved, she sped off to her room.

I completely forgot about the incident, until I opened the exam paper at nine o'clock that morning. Question number two was about a gag order! Clearly this paper had also leaked. It was a highly technical paper and again required a lot of concentration and sharpness to make the right decision as to what answer to submit.

Unlike university law exams which are highly theoretical and anyone can pass them, even without attending class, LDC exams are a different ball game.

Miss class and you kiss the course goodbye. It is impossible to pass exams if you miss classes, because there are hundreds of statutes and cases to be mastered and even more ways of tackling a problem. LDC exams are about real life legal situations. There is nothing to guess or theorize about. It is all about pragmatism. As it turned out, several students had somehow gotten hold of the paper, possibly early that morning and had rushed to prepare the answers. When the question paper was handed to them, some were overheard exclaiming "this is the one!!"

Problem was, the paper - obviously set by Head, Civil Proceedings, Mr John Mary Mugisha (JMM), arguably the best legal brain in civil procedure that this country has, was long and difficult. JMM is generous and thorough in the lecture room and takes students on elaborate forays into the legal world. But when it comes to exams - be it the weekly tests (Individual Assessment, IA) or anything else - he takes immense pride in stretching the students into deep-thinking mode.

He likes students to analyse and draw lessons from legal precedents set by courts. Nobody could agree on what the correct interpretation of the first question was. Some said it required judicial review by the High Court; others argued that it required a petition to the Constitutional court. Bedlam broke out!

It appears that those who figured they had taken the wrong course of argument decided it was unfair to let those who had enjoyed the dubious advantage of stealing the paper ahead of time, get away with their sins. They promptly petitioned the Head of the Bar Course, Mr. Expedit Kaaya. That Friday, as we walked into the exam rooms to write our final paper (Domestic Relations), Mr. Kaaya announced that the Civil Proceedings exam had been cancelled.

The announcement caused immediate celebrations among those who felt they were getting a rare second chance. But those who were certain they had passed (even without cheating), were reluctant to go through the pressure of another exam. LDC is not a decent place for those with weak knees and faint hearts. You feel the heat the moment you walk in - everyone tells you failure is the rule, passing the exception. And there is so much to do, you never get breathing space.

You feel even more heat the moment you finish your exams, because you are not really certain whether you made the right arguments. Many torture chambers would struggle to beat LDC. Some students filed a counter-petition to the LDC management, objecting to the second paper. The petition was dismissed. They immediately sued LDC, applying for Judicial Review in the High Court.

They never showed up to defend their petition...and lost. We sat a new paper a month later, on September 20th, 2010, which proved even more slippery than the first, for while JMM had given students room for manoeuvre - there were two or three procedural options for each question; the new paper was much shorter and with little or no room for maneuver. You either got it right or wrong.

Fast forward to March 2011 when the results came out. Only 36 had passed; and only half without needing compensating marks. The worst done were primarily and predictably, Criminal Proceedings and Commercial Transactions. But even the other subjects had surprisingly many casualties; some of them 'big' names. So I flew in from my country for the supplementary exams, which I passed without incident.

It was when I got back to my country that I began getting text messages that for five million bucks, you could be helped to pass. Some kids told me they were busy looking for the money. Two or three names were mentioned. I did not consider cheating an option. I carefully went over my answers (mentally) and decided that I had argued correctly and should be able to pass.

I did. And graduation day 2011 was, we felt, a well-earned reward. The only thing that dampened the euphoria was that only one third of those who enrolled in 2009 made it to graduation. That was sad. Nevertheless many of us felt the sense of satisfaction that we passed without cheating. I flew back to my country a proud young man.

Who is behind the leaked exams and altered marks?

One thing seems almost certain: it wasn't the lecturers. These men take pride in setting competitive exams. It is most probably those who handle the papers the moment the questions are printed out. The leakages are the first level of cheating. The second level is alteration of marks; which, from the stories we got from our predecessors, could be 'arranged' with the staff who have access to the results sheets.

One admitted that he had failed Domestic Relations five times (in those days you could sit exams for as many times as possible until you finally passed), until a secretary or clerk somewhere altered the marks to enable him graduate. For a bit of money, one, at least in our days and undoubtedly some of those before us, could go through LDC without breaking too much sweat, as long as they knew who to be nice to.

It is unlikely there is a place of learning as competitive and comprehensive as LDC. The lecturers are thorough; the curriculum is great. No time is wasted. Every minute is utilized. A few problems here and there perhaps; but on the whole, a great institution which puts one on a powerful weighing scale; forwarding you into legal practice if you are found worthy, and dropping you aside if thou art found wanting.

LDC's bigger problem is, it is in Uganda and because of that, there is always a way around established procedure - be it in the pre-entry exams or the final ones.

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