Academic freedom in legal education

As 2019 ended, the Supreme Court promulgated a decision strongly upholding academic freedom.  This is the case of Oscar Pimentel et al. vs. Salvador Medialdea and the Legal Education Board (LEB). While the main focus of the case is the regulation of law schools, the implications of the doctrine laid down by the Court in this case will extend to all higher educational institutions, public and private, and will also have an impact on the powers of the Commission on Higher Education.

The case arose when the Legal Education Board issued Memorandum Order No 7-2016 pursuant to its power to “prescribe the minimum standards for law admission” under Section 7(e) of Republic Act No. 7662. The rationale behind MO No. 7-2016 is to improve legal education by requiring all those seeking admission to the basic law course to take and pass a nationwide uniform law school admission test, known as PhilSat to be administered under the control and supervision of LEB. Effective Academic Year 2017 and 2018, no applicant of law school was allowed admission without having taken or passed the PhilSat.

The petitioners argue that R.A. 7662 and PhilSat are offensive to the Supreme Court’s power to regulate and supervise the legal profession pursuant to the Constitution and that Congress cannot create an administrative office that exercises the Court’s power over the practice of law. Petitioners also assailed the power of LEB under R.A. 7662 to prescribe the qualifications and compensation of faculty members and to adopt a system of continuing legal education as being repugnant to the Court’s rule making power concerning the practice of law.

In the majority opinion written by Associate Justice Jose Reyes, Jr., the Court ruled that contrary to the submission of the petitioners, the Court has no jurisdiction over legal education, as it is a mere component of the entire Philippine educational system. According to the Court, the Supreme Court’s exclusive rule making power covers the practice of law and not the study of law. Its authority is limited to define the practice of law, to determine who will be admitted to the practice of law, to hold in contempt any person found to be engaged in unauthorized practice of law and to exercise corollary disciplinary authority over members of the Bar.

On the other hand, enactment of education laws is an exercise of police power. As a professional education program, legal education properly falls within the supervisory and regulatory competence of the State.

However, the Constitution only allows the State the power of supervision and regulation, not control. In this sense, the State supervisory power merely includes a supportive power, that is, the power of oversight or the authority to check, but not to interfere. But for the State’s power to supervise and regulate to be valid, the exercise thereof must be reasonable and not repugnant to the Constitution.

As a rule, institutions of higher learning enjoy ample discretion to decide for itself who may teach, what may be taught, how it shall be taught and who to admit. The State can however impose minimum regulations. In this connection, the Court finds no constitutional conflict between its rule-making power and the power of LEB to prescribe minimum standards for law admission under Sec. 7(e) of R.A. 7662. As such, the PhilSat, which intends to regulate admission to law schools, cannot be voided on this ground. Sec. 7(e) insofar as it gives LEB the power to prescribe minimum standards for law admission is faithful to the reasonable supervision and regulation clause. It merely amounts to supervision, not control.

With the conclusion that PhilSat when administered as an aptitude test, passes the test of reasonableness, there is no reason to strike down the PhilSat in its entirety. However, the Court partially nullifies LEB MO No. 7-2016 insofar as it absolutely prescribes the passing of the PhilSat and the taking thereof within 2 years as a prerequisite for admission to any law school which runs counter to institutional academic freedom.

By way of ruling, majority of the Court partially granted the petitions by upholding the constitutionality of sec. 7 ( c) of RA 7662 ( giving LEB the power to accredit law schools), sec 7 (e) of RA 7662 (giving LEB power to prescribe minimum requirements for admission to legal education and minimum qualifications of faculty members). However, it declared unconstitutional for encroaching upon the power for the Court certain sections of RA 7662 insofar as it includes continuing legal education as an aspect of legal education, and the power to establish a law practice internship, the power to adopt a mandatory continuing legal education and to provide mandatory attendance of practicing lawyers.

Also declared unconstitutional for being ultra vires is the power of LEB to exclude, restrict and qualify admissions to law schools in violation of institutional academic freedom on who to admit. Likewise declared unconstitutional is the practice of LEB of dictating the qualifications and classification of faculty members, deans, and deans of graduate schools of law in violation of institutional academic freedom on who may teach. Finally, declared unconstitutional is the practice of LEB of dictating the policies on the establishment of legal apprenticeship and legal internship programs in violation of institutional academic freedom on what to teach.

Through this decision, the Legal Education Board as an institution will continue to exist but its regulatory powers have been severely constricted by the Court’s sweeping and strong endorsement of academic freedom.

In the next column, I will discuss the even more powerful opinion written by Associate Justice Marvic Leonen and how his understanding of academic freedom is what we exactly need in this era of rapid dissemination of information at the expense of knowledge and wisdom.

Visit this website to access the article.

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