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A few blotches in an otherwise white sheet

(Article Published in the Oct 24,2012 issue of Manila Standard Today)

       The great Onofre Pagsanjan, trying to convince us, the rowdy crew of bit actors in the high school rendition of Shakepeare’s Julius Ceasar, to act in unison when we portrayed the fickle crowd’s shifting sympathy from Brutus to Anthony, held up a white sheet of bond paper. “Everyone”, he said, “will see and remember this sheet of paper as white. But if there were a spot of black, anywhere, the audience will recall the black rather than the white.”

       So it was with the Committee of so-called Experts (actually a motley group of not too junior (except for the two ladies) tax practitioners, professors and Justices of the Court of Tax Appeals, during our meeting convened by the UP Law Center on the 18 of this October, the week following the Taxation bar examination for 2012.

       There was no doubt that a lot of effort went into the formulation of both the Multiple Choice and the Essay-Type Questions. They were undoubtedly a marked improvement from the questions of the previous year, the first time that the Supreme Court employed the new format espoused by then Bar Examinations Chairman Robert Abad. However, a few black blotches did appear in the otherwise white sheets. For the sake of the nervous bar takers, some are mentioned here, with the hope that the bar examiner would, in the correcting the examination booklets, would nevertheless heed the our recommendations.

       The experts’ unanimous sentiment was, contrary to the general expectation that the bar examinations are meant to test whether the taker had both the knowledge and skill required of a new entrant into the profession, “entry level” so-called, the questions demanded more the proficiency of one who, if not an long-time practitioner, had at least a few years of tax work.

       For this reason, the Supreme Court, in its benevolence, published in its website a Syllabus to guide the reviewees on what points of tax law they were expected to know. The Syllabus had this Important Note. “This bar coverage description is not intended and should not be used bylaw schools as a syllabus or course outline in the covered subjects. It has been drawn up for the limited purpose of ensuring that candidates reviewing for the bar examinations are guided on what basic and minimum amounts of laws, doctrines, and principles they need to know and be able to use correctly before they can be licensed to practice law. More is required for excellent and distinguished work as members of the Bar.”

       This representation notwithstanding, there were questions about the taxation of foreign corporations, of PEZA-registered export enterprises, computation (dreaded by most takers, many of whom took up law because they did were afraid of math), and familiarity with specific areas of tax law which only an elite few of tax lawyers have in their finger tips.

       Another common sentiment of the tax experts was that the way some (not too many but definitely enough to be disconcerting to a bar taker who is conscious of the time allotted for him to read, think and respond correctly) multiple choice questions were framed in a confusing manner: the choices were given ahead of the question.

       For instance, several statements of legal principles are given, and then, and only at the end, is the question asked, such as “Which statement above is INCORRECT?”, or “Which statement shown above is NOT correct” or “Which statement above does NOT properly refer to a GPP [general professional partnership]”.

       To one who has the luxury of time to analyze, the reverse order or protocol does not matter. But not so, to one who is under stress. And a live illustration of just how the reverse order could disorient the reader, the discussion chair of the committee of experts himself thrice gave the wrong answers. The combination of reverse presentation with the negative formulation misled him, to his chagrin and to the amusement of his fellows, to make the errors.

       Finally, the tax experts pointed out that in some questions in the multiple choice portion of the exam, more than one answer is correct. That ordinarily should be a blessing to the bar takers. The problem, however, arises when the bar takers discuss among themselves the answers that they had given. The requirement to choose among many choices is on the premise that there is only one correct answer. But if in fact, as the experts noted, more than one choice should be considered correct, then the discussion among the bar takers after passing their papers and leaving the examination premises could lead to discouragement and depression. These emotions bar takers could very do without in this crucial stage of their law career.

       Other minor complains are that some were not precise enough (showing really the need for a trained set of examiners to craft the bar questions), a bit faulty English evident in the formulation of the what is required to be responded to, the appearance of being geared towards an examination for would be accountants instead of lawyers, the inclusion of questions which more logically belong to other subjects, such as commercial law or remedial law, and plausibility of two or more interpretations of the facts given or the exact principle being elicited.

       The purpose of the experts exercise at the UP Law Center is to open the eyes of the examiner to imperfections in his exam, in the fervent hope that he would be reasonable, if not lenient, in assessing the responses. I had been an examiner for taxation in the years 2001 and 2003 and I know how difficult making questions can be. But formulating acceptable questions is just the beginning of a hard job. It is the tedium of correcting and the deadline for finishing the correction that are most demanding on the examiner. I trust this year’s tax examiner would meet the experts’ recommendations at least with an open mind. And take in stride the boos that just might come when the identities of examiners who had given the bar takers a hard time are presented and revealed.

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