More ‘reasonable’ Bar exams resulted in high passing rate

Lian Buan

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More ‘reasonable’ Bar exams resulted in high passing rate
'The Bar chairman was very consistent in his statement that he wanted to ensure that there will be a high passing mark,' says Dean Sol Mawis, head of the law schools' association

The 2016 Bar examinations registered a 59.06% passing rate – the highest in decades – because the chairman of the Bar this year was more “reasonable.”

Associate Justice Presbitero Velasco Jr, the Bar chairman, declared from the get go that he wanted a high passing rate for 2016.

A Bar passer’s comment on Facebook has been circulated among groups of lawyers since the release of the results on Wednesday, May 3, where the passer said that Justice Velasco had gone room to room during the examinations in November and “promised to be lenient.” The Bar passer has yet to reply to Rappler’s further questions. (READ: List of passers: 2016 Bar exams)

Another Bar passer confirmed to Rappler that Justice Velasco had indeed offered encouraging words to the takers. The Bar passer said: “He went room to room, sabi niya just answer kahit hindi ‘nyo alam, finish it, basta good grammar. He said he will tell the examiners to be lenient and give partial points just as long as it’s good grammar.” (He said just answer if you don’t know the answer, finish it, just as long as it’s good grammar.)

During the announcement of the results at the Supreme Court (SC) premises, Velasco said that “points were given to answers, even if the positions taken may not exactly be the right answer.”

“For after all, the minority view of a legal issue may become the majority view in the future,” the Bar chairman said.

For Dean Sol Mawis of Lyceum University, president of the Philippine Association of Law Schools (PALS), Velasco should not be described as lenient but rather “reasonable.” (READ: 2016 Bar passers want to be in public service)

“Justice Velasco was very consistent in his statement that he wanted to ensure that there will be a high passing mark. The questions that were asked are entry level questions, ayaw ko naman sinabing dinalian dahil may mga question din namang mahirap, kasi may 41% na hindi pumasa. It’s more reasonable in terms of the content, and in terms of the number of questions that were asked,” Mawis told Rappler in a telephone interview.

(I don’t want to say that it was made easier this year, because 41% still did not pass.)

According to Mawis, Justice Velasco met with the deans of law schools, allowing them to raise their concerns with him. One of the requests, Mawis said, was to craft the exam in such a way that the first question would not be the most difficult.

The request, it turned out, was granted.

“[The questions] were arranged in such a way that it builds up the confidence of the student, it’s not nerve-wracking. It was prepared in a way that it gives hope,” Mawis said.

There were also fewer questions in this year’s Bar exams.

Dean Joan Largo of the University of San Carlos (USC) in Cebu, which produced 4 topnotchers including the 1st placer, told ANC that it helped that Justice Velasco was in “constant communication” with them so they would know how to best prepare their students. (READ: University of San Carlos grad tops 2016 Bar exams)

Bar examiners crafted the questions but “subject to the control of the chairman,” a source said. It’s also the Bar examiners who check and ultimately decide the fates, at least in their subjects, of the Bar takers.

Bar examiners this year were: retired SC Justice Antonio Nachura (Political Law and Public International Law), Court of Appeals (CA) Justice Magdangal de Leon (Labor Laws and Social Legislation), CA Justice Japar Dimaampao (Civil Law), CA Justice Ramon Paul Hernando (Mercantile Law), CA Justice Victoria Isabel A. Paredes (Criminal Law), CA Justice Myra Garcia-Fernandez (Ethics and Practical Exercises), Court of Tax Appeals (CTA) Justice Lovell Bautista (Taxation), and SC Justice Noel Tijam (Remedial Law).

Former Bar examiner Theodore Te told Rappler that “examiners take the cue from the chair if they will be too strict or too lenient.”

“But discretion is always with the examiners to look at an answer and assign points depending on appreciation of the answer, striking the balance between fair and being firm,” Te told Rappler in a text message. (READ: Former Comelec janitor to lawyer – dreams come true at 2016 Bar exams)

“I understand that from the very beginning, Justice Velasco has promised law deans that he will ensure that the 2016 Bar exam will fairly assess the abilities of the examinees,” Legal Education Board (LEB) chairman Emerson Aquende told Rappler in a text message.

University of the East (UE) College of Law Dean Willard Riano observed that while the questions were certainly “not easy,” a “novel approach in checking answers” contributed to the high passing rate.

“The emphasis was not on  the accuracy of the conclusion but on how the examinees defended their answers. Justice Velasco’s approach was commendable. This approach is how answers should be evaluated. After all, in the law profession, disagreement is the rule. If everybody agrees on a conclusion, there would be no litigation,” Riano told Rappler.

Technological advances

Retired Justice Arturo Brion wrote a column for Manila Bulletin days prior to the Bar results that the passing rate, high or low, “does not define at all the quality of our legal education.”

Justice Brion said that the “spikes here and there” in the Bar examinations will be for nothing if the legal education in the country does not improve. Two of the problems he pointed out are the scarcity of law teachers and the quality of the ones who teach law. 

For Aquende, improvements have been made since, especially in law schools in the provinces which could be partly credited with why this year’s topnotchers all belonged to schools outside the National Capital Region (NCR). Aquende said provincial schools have invested on hiring quality law teachers.

“The gap between NCR and provincial schools had been consistently shrinking given the technological advances that now give the latter access to the same knowledge and information available to the former,” Aquende said.

The 2016 Bar examinations were hounded by a leak controversy days after it was administered at the University of Santo Tomas (UST) in November. Rumors which spread on social media said there were leaks in commercial law and criminal law exams.

Justice Velasco quickly dismissed them and vouched for the integrity of the Bar examinations. Mawis backed Justice Velasco on that.

And whether or not the 2016 Bar exam was easier than in the past, Mawis said it does not reflect on the quality of lawyers produced this year.

“Let’s not rob the new lawyers of victory. If you passed the Bar, you passed the Bar. For one to say mas madali ito (it’s easier), that is so unfair, that is very unfair,” Mawis said. –

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Lian Buan

Lian Buan is a senior investigative reporter, and minder of Rappler's justice, human rights and crime cluster.