MUN law school 'is going to happen,' says university's VP

It's been talked about for many years, but there's growing momentum, with vice-president Noreen Golfman this week saying, "This is going to happen."

University senate has endorsed plan, with Noreen Golfman hoping for approval from board of regents this year

Noreen Golfman is the provost and academic vice-president of Memorial University, and is a supporter of the proposal to establish a faculty of law at the university. (Ted Dillon/CBC)

It's been talked about for many years, but there's growing momentum once again for the establishment of a law school at Memorial University.

"This is going to happen," said Noreen Golfman, provost and academic vice-president.

The concept was given a boost last fall after MUN's senate approved a detailed proposal for a faculty of law.

Golfman said it's possible the board of regents could also green-light the idea some time this year, with a new school up and running over the next three to five years.

"Just about everything is in place. We've got lots of moral support. It's really about getting down to the nuts and bolts of what it will cost," Golfman told CBC News on Thursday.

High-profile support

The plan is getting some very high-profile support, with Supreme Court of Newfoundland and Labrador Justice Fonse Faour saying the absence of a law school is "a huge gap" in the province's legal system.

Prince Edward Island is the only other Canadian province without a law school. Even Iceland, with a much smaller population than Newfoundland and Labrador, trains students in the practice of law, said Faour.

Justice Fonse Faour, a member of the Supreme Court of Newfoundland and Labrador judiciary, says a MUN law school could be successful. (CBC)

"The research, the expertise and the contributions to the standards of practice would be invaluable," said Faour.

Currently, prospective lawyers must leave the province, and most go to the University of New Brunswick or Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia.

Wouldn't it be great to have our students stay here if they want to stay here? Study from our own legal experts? Study the issues that are relevant? I think that would be fabulous.- Noreen Golfman

"Wouldn't it be great to have our students stay here if they want to stay here? Study from our own legal experts? Study the issues that are relevant? I think that would be fabulous," said Golfman.

"We heard from many people who said they would go to a law school if there was one in the province, but because of family or financial reasons they weren't able to go outside the province," Faour added.

Up to 100 students

A 2013 feasibility study recommended that MUN consider establishing a law school.

A revised committee that included Faour followed up with a detailed proposal that was completed last summer, and approved by the university senate in November. 

It envisions a three-year degree program with up to 100 students per year, and a full-time faculty of 18.

The plan calls for the construction of a new building on the St. John's campus, linked with the faculty of business administration, and next to the school of social work.

Competitive tuition fees

Operating costs are estimated at $9 million annually, most of which would be covered by tuition fees that Golfman said will be competitive, affordable and accessible, especially for students from Newfoundland and Labrador.

She said there are plans to establish a scholarship fund to help those with limited means, similar to those at other law schools throughout Canada.

The construction of a new building will likely be the biggest hurdle, and Golfman said there are plans to initiate a fundraising campaign, and initiate talks with the provincial government.

"I think the will is there," she said, adding that there's strong support from both the university's alumni and those in the legal field.

I think this province is overdue for a law school.- Noreen Golfman

"I'm optimistic. I think this province is overdue for a law school."

But the push for a law school comes at a challenging time for the university, which has been dealing with a steadily eroding operating budget from the provincial government, and a long-standing tuition freeze for Newfoundland and Labrador students that makes it difficult for the university to generate more revenue.

And support from the senate came with the condition that a law school would be cost-neutral, and not affect any existing programs.

Faour understands there are challenges, but believes it can work.

"If we charge tuition at the Canadian average, that should cover as much as 70 to 75 per cent of the costs. The balance of the cost can be raised from a variety of places, whether it's government, private sources. Those are challenges I think the university wishes to confront in the next few months before it makes a final decision," he said.

Without grant support from the government, the report says, the annual tuition fee would be approximately $30,000. 

"A law school is one of the cheapest professional schools that you can have," Faour added.

Seats for Indigenous students

The degree program would offer specializations in sustainable northern resource development and social justice, which would be unique in legal education.

And up to three seats per year would be available for applicants of Indigenous ancestry who meet admission requirements.

So what are the benefits of a law school?

Classrooms like this one at Memorial University might soon be occupied by law students. MUN is closer than ever to the etablishment of a faculty of law. (CBC)

Supporters say the list is long, but making the study of law more affordable for local students and providing a forum from which experts can provide commentary on issues of public policy and judicial decisions are most often cited.

"I've seen, as a judge, the importance of having well-founded laws and well-founded commentary on laws. I see what happens when the decisions of the courts, or positions taken by the legislature, are the subject of commentary that's very ill-informed," said Faour.

The Law Society of Newfoundland and Labrador declined an interview request, but in a statement said it looks forward to further assessment and consultation as the issue moves forward.

Currently, the law society has 767 practising members.

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

About the Author

Terry Roberts

CBC News

Terry Roberts is a journalist with CBC's bureau in St. John's.

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