Government plans to delay abolishment of bar exam

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Government plans to delay abolishment of bar exam

Korea’s Ministry of Justice announced on Thursday that it will delay abolishment of the state-run bar exam until 2021, a decision that reflects growing worries and controversy over the three-year law school system.

The Justice Ministry’s decision has given those studying for the competitive bar exam four extra years to try out their chances. The exam was initially scheduled to be abolished in 2017 with the full adoption of a U.S.-style law school system, which was first introduced in 2009.

“After collecting various opinions from social groups and through public polls, the government has decided to delay the bar exam’s abolishment by four years until 2021. In the meantime, the government will come up with alternative ways to make up for the bar exam’s abolishment [in 2021],” Kim Joo-hyun, vice justice minister, said during a press briefing on Thursday at the ministry.

On why the ministry had decided to provide a four-year grace period, he said it had been agreed that the time frame would give enough time for the authorities to present alternatives. Additionally, 2021 will mark a decade since the introduction of the current qualifying exam for law school graduates to practice law.

Kim went on to say that alternative measures could include coming up with another exam similar to the current bar exam or similar to the qualifying exam for law school graduates.

While the government hinted that it was still on track to abolish the bar exam four years later than initially planned, it remains a possibility that it could decide to keep the traditional exam, which has served as a gateway for those from poor families to transcend social class and practice law.

Numerous concerns have arisen since the law school system was introduced nearly seven years ago, namely that it prevents career opportunities for those in the middle and lower classes due to its high tuition expenses, which can easily exceed 100 million won ($86,000) for a three-year program.

The law school system was championed by the Roh Moo-hyun government and first began accepting students in the 2009 school year with the aim of increasing the number of lawyers who specialize in various fields of the legal sector at a lower cost.

The initial plan was to phase out the traditional bar exam by gradually reducing the size of the pool allowed to take the exam and eventually abolish it by 2017.

Those who pass the traditional bar exam go on to study at the Judicial Research and Training Institute before practicing law. If the bar exam - open to non-university graduates - is abolished, only those who study at the country’s 25 law schools will be eligible to take the qualifying exams to become lawyers, prosecutors or judges. With the government’s announcement on Thursday, the debate over whether to keep the bar exam after 2021 or abolish it as initially proposed are only expected to intensify. The decision has already drawn strong responses from those in the legal circle.

The Korean Bar Association welcomed the decision to keep the bar exam until 2021, but it also expressed regret in its statement Thursday that the government had evaded its responsibility to make a final decision on the matter, citing a public poll conducted by the ministry that found 85.4 percent of respondents in favor of keeping the bar exam. The Korean Association of Law Schools lashed out at the decision, going so far as to say the Justice Ministry had presented “a stopgap alternative from its lack of rational judgment.”

BY KANG JIN-KYU [kang.jinkyu@joongang.co.kr]

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