Admission to Bar Denied Over Student Plagiarism

In Singapore, an aspiring lawyer has been denied admission to the Bar over a pair of back-to-back plagiarism instances that occurred while he was obtaining his juris doctor law degree at Singapore Management University (SMU).

The story is published by Selina Lum at the Straight Times and looks at the case of Gabriel Silas Tang Rafferty, a 47-year-old applicant who will now have to wait at least five years before filing another application for admission.

According to the bar association’s decision, Rafferty was involved in two episodes of plagiarism. The first took place in February 2019 and involved an assignment where he copied many portions of it from a classmate. The plagiarism was discovered ten days later, and he promised that he would learn from the incident and not let it happen again.

However, it did happen again. In fact, it happened barely a month later as a research paper he submitted was flagged by Turnitin. This resulted in him failing the module and receiving a formal letter of reprimand.

When he filed his affidavit in support of his Bar admission, he only disclosed the second incident, though with an attempt to deflect blame. However, the Attorney-General learned of the first one in correspondence with SMU and pressed Rafferty on the issue. He then filed a disclosure on that incident as well.

According to Rafferty, he didn’t disclose the first incident because he thought it would be kept in confidence. The Chief Justice noted that this was an attempt to deceive them by hiding information that was relevant. He went on to say that Rafferty did not appear to have begun the process of rehabilitation.

As such, the Bar did not allow Rafferty to withdraw the petition, opting instead to refuse his admission. As a result, Rafferty will not be able to apply again for at least five years.

For long-time readers of this site, this story might sound very familiar. That’s because it closely mirrors a similar story that took place four years ago an ocean away.

Not the First Time

Back in January 2020, we took a look at the story of Canadian lawyer hopeful, Oluwaseun Itunu Olowolafe, who was finally approved to be granted an L1 license after an eight-year wait.

Olowolafe’s problem, like Rafferty’s, involved plagiarism. During his academic career, he had three separate plagiarism incidents. This included one in September 2006 while working on his undergraduate degree and a second one in June 2008 that saw him be suspended for 12 months. He also admitted to a third incident in 2012 that took place earlier in his career.

Olowolafe received an LL.B. from the University of Northampton in 2012. However, when he applied to the Bar later that year, he only disclosed the 2006 incident and not the 2008 one. He called this a “foolish mistake” and withdrew his application in July 2014.

He applied again in September 2014 but withdrew that one in January 2015. Eventually, in February 2016, the Law Society for Alberta rejected his application on the grounds that he had failed to establish his good character.

Olowolafe continued to apply and, in December 2019, the Law Society of Ontario granted his application, after more than seven years of waiting.

These stories should be a strong warning to students hoping to become lawyers: Plagiarism in the classroom can have severe consequences when you later apply to get your license, especially if you aren’t transparent about what happened.

Similar Stories, Similar Outcomes

One of the things about academic plagiarism is that, for most students, the consequences begin an end in the classroom. While fears of a failing grade, suspension or even expulsion are real and serious, one typically doesn’t face consequences for academic plagiarism once they leave school.

There are exceptions. President Joe Biden, for example, had his plagiarism at Syracuse Law School come up repeatedly in his recent elections. Also, allegations of dissertation plagiarism were major parts in the scandal surrounding Claudine Gay as well as Neri Oxman as well as others over recent months.

However, those are all examples of cases being played out in the court of public opinion. With Rafferty and Olowolafe, we’re dealing with formal repercussions that are tied directly to allegations of plagiarism.

That said, neither of these are cases where plagiarism in the classroom leads directly to being denied admission to the Bar. Instead, in both cases, the applicant was not transparent about their past plagiarism and failed to adequately disclose their issues.

Though it’s impossible to know if they would have been accepted with proper disclosure, there was almost no way they would be accepted without it. Part of the job of the Bar is to ensure that applicants are of good character. While mistakes, especially as a student, don’t necessarily speak to one’s character as a professional and a graduate, failure to properly disclose those mistakes when required to do so does.

I suspect that, with proper disclosure, both men could have avoided significant delays in becoming a lawyer. While plagiarism issues in school can be a warning sign of ethical issues, for many students such moments are just mistakes that they learn from and move on.

In the end, both of these cases had the trifecta of repeated plagiarism, lack of disclosure and inconsistent answers to questions being asked. All three of those elements likely played a factor in the decisions reached, even if they aren’t, in the end, permanent road blocks.

Bottom Line

Typically, the punishments for academic plagiarism don’t leave the school. In most cases, once a student graduates, there’s not much danger of plagiarism incidents coming back to bite them, especially if those incidents were addressed while they were there.

But, as we’re repeatedly seeing, individuals are having their work as students closely examined, especially when it involves a public figure or someone who is politically expedient to target.

Rightly or wrongly, this is something that students need to consider when working on assignments. They need to know that, even if they manage to get the plagiarism past their instructors, that it can come back to haunt them later.

That said, these cases are still unique as these are formal professional consequences for plagiarism that took place while one was a student. However, it would have been interesting to see how the Bar would have reacted if both had been properly disclosed.

It’s likely the outcomes would have been very different.

Still, it’s a cautionary tale for all students, but especially those looking to become lawyers. Plagiarism in the classroom can carry serious profession consequences, even after you receive your degree.

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