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Halting progress of legal education

LEGAL EDUCATION in India has never been as good as it is today. Of course, there are many shortcomings still to be addressed to make it a truly professional training for preparing lawyers for the future. Nevertheless, compared to what Setalvad found in the Fourteenth Law Commission Report (1954) and what the Bar Council of India discovered in its legal education survey on the eve of introducing the five-year integrated law course (1982), we have a system in place now which, at least in parts, is not only good but potentially capable of becoming internationally competitive in years to come.

What contributed to this process of change towards professional legal education? Among other things, I would identify the following:

(1) A bold and creative decision on the part of the Bar Council of India, first to replace the three year (mostly part-time) LL.B. programme with an integrated five-year LL.B. course and secondly to try out the scheme in a model law school (National Law School) sponsored by the BCI itself. The first initiative happened in 1982 and the second in 1986.

(2) An acknowledgement by the BCI that their jurisdiction is confined to professional legal education only and universities and colleges are free to impart liberal law education in whatever way they considered appropriate independent of the BCI. This again happened in 1982 as part of the Rules framed for the five- year LL.B. course.

(3) The outstanding success of the National Law School experiment invited attention from policy planners (Committee on Subordinate Legislation of the tenth Parliament recommended a Bangalore model law school in every State which has been endorsed by the All India Law Ministers Conference at Bhubaneswar in 1992), the organised bar and the Committee of Judges on legal education appointed by the Chief Justice of India (1993). The call was responded by the setting up of law universities on the Bangalore model in Hyderabad (1996), Bhopal (1997), Delhi (1998), Kolkata (1999) and Jodhpur (2000).

(4) An organised attempt by the BCI with the assistance of the National Law School to revamp the curriculum (1996), increasing the number of required subjects to be taught and introducing an imaginative component of practical training (four courses for a total of 400 marks) to be completed at the law school in the final year.

(5) Introduction (though aborted by a Supreme Court judgment) of an year-long apprenticeship under a senior advocate as a pre- requisite for enrolment as an advocate (1996).

(6) A vigorous drive to weed out so-called poor quality law colleges around the country through physical inspection of facilities and threat of derecognition of degrees; and finally

(7) By announcing a scheme of professional entry test to be conducted by the BCI for foreign law degree holders to be able to seek enrolment under the Indian Advocates Act.

A series of compromises

However, the pace of change towards improving the quality of legal education was watered down by the very same Bar Council through a series of compromises adopted in the course of the last two decades. These include:

(a) allowing the three year LL.B. course to continue as before side by side with the five-year integrated programme;

(b) not following the distinction between professional and liberal legal education in categorising the over 500 law teaching institutions for extending BCI jurisdiction;

) reducing the eligibility criteria for admission to the professional law course;

(d) inability to mobilise funds for supporting improvements in legal education, particularly among institutions located outside metropolitan cities;

(e) inability to revive the pre-enrolment apprenticeship scheme or any other viable alternative to ensure minimum professional competence on the part of fresh entrants to the profession;

(f) inability to deter full-time teachers from practising law and thereby depriving students of the benefit of services of these teachers; and

(g) inability to provide any meaningful guidance for institutionalising clinical teaching (of skills) and imparting education on professional ethics.

The Government of India also contributed to this decline by refusing to amend the relevant provisions of the Advocates Act even after repeated approaches by the Bar Council of India.

Meanwhile there are media reports that the Government of India through the Ministry of Law is bringing forward a Bill to establish a national law university with multiple campuses in different regions, ostensibly to improve the quality of legal education.

The University Grants Commission, which is in control of higher education generally, has conveniently avoided paying attention to legal education except perhaps for their one-time effort in curriculum development way back in the 1980s. Thus legal education is left with multiple controllers with little or no accountability. Even the accreditation mechanism put in place by the UGC is not particularly geared to evaluating performance of law teaching institutions. What is available to the public is an India Today annual survey of the top ten law schools in the country. This is an unsatisfactory state of affairs for the future of legal education in India which will soon be called upon to compete globally for quality, professionalism and responsiveness to changing demands.

Directions for change

What are the expectations of the country and the people from law and legal services in the coming years, given the process of globalisation and transformation in the role of the state? What is the best strategy to strengthen professional legal education while promoting wider instruction in law as a liberal academic discipline? If training in skills and ethics is to be accomplished within the law school curriculum what is the appropriate model to achieve this end? How does one assess the social relevance and justice content of law teaching and what can be done to maximise those goals? What ought to be the supervisory and control mechanism to ensure accountability on the part of professional schools of law in maintaining standards of teaching, research and extension activities?

To be able to address these questions one must have an awareness of the challenges involved and the changes taking place in contemporary times. These relate to unmet legal needs of different sections of society, delay and cost in accessing justice, impact of globalisation on equality and human rights, vast technological changes especially in information and communication, the relative incapacitation of the state by market domination and the role of professions in justice, peace and development. In all these changes law and lawyers play a decisive role of facilitation, moderation and control. Law without justice is an empty shell. It is the nature of and access to institutions and procedures which make justice possible. In structuring the institutions and procedures, particularly in periods of transition, lawyers will have to assist communities, interest groups and governments keeping in mind the requirements of equity, justice and fairness.

Additional roles

The conventional role of a lawyer is to step in after the event to resolve disputes and dispense justice to the aggrieved party. In the changed scenario, the additional roles envisaged are that of policy planner, business advisor, negotiator among interest groups, expert in articulation and communication of ideas, mediator, lobbyist, law reformer, etc. These roles demand specialised knowledge and skills not ordinarily available in the existing profession. The five-year integrated programme of legal education is a modest response to these challenges as perceived in the 1980s well before the end of Cold War and advent of market-oriented globalisation. The lawyer of tomorrow must be comfortable to interact with other professions on an equal footing and be able to consume scientific and technical knowledge. In other words, along with social science subjects, the law curriculum for the future must provide integrated knowledge of a whole range of physical and natural science subjects on which legal policies are now being formulated. These areas include bio-diversity, bio-technology, information technology, environmental sciences, air and space technologies, ocean and marine sciences, forensic sciences, public health, petroleum and minerals related subjects, etc. Lawyers will be naturally called upon to specialise in assorted branches of legal practice as it is impossible to be a practitioner on all emerging areas of legal practice.

The image of a lawyer in society as well as the self-image of the profession is not what it ought to have been given the diverse roles as stipulated above. A change is needed and it is important that the profession exists for the people and not the other way round. The way the profession is organised today also requires change to let a more rational distribution of work and to promote standards of efficiency and accountability. The way a lawyer thinks, acts and conducts himself will have to change if legal services have to be a powerful tool for justice in an unequal society/world. It is here legal education has to take its lesson on value addition. Justice must become central to the law curriculum and community-based learning must give the desired value orientation in the making of a lawyer. To give a recent example, one can say that the young law students who went to the earthquake affected districts of Gujarat seeking to carry legal services to the victims came back with impressions and experiences which would no doubt influence their professional life and shape their approach to justice. The idea being canvassed here is that professional education will have to be imbued with a spirit of social service and there is no better way of inculcating it except to expose them while studying law to real life experiences crying out for justice. The politics of legal education and the economics of legal practice should be subjected to academic scrutiny if the profession has to be saved from the practitioners themselves!


Vice-Chancellor, W.B. National University of Juridical Sciences

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