To go from mediocrity to excellence

At a National Consultation organised by the Law Ministry during May 1-2, 2010, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh described legal education in India as a “sea of institutionalised mediocrity with a few islands of excellence,” and stressed the need for dramatic reform in terms of its scope and quality. He wanted the legal education system to be sensitive to the needs of the marginalised sections of society, particularly in the context of globalisation and the retreat of the state from some of its traditional roles. He felt that in future, domestic legal mechanisms will increasingly interact with both international and foreign legal systems and that the law schools should prepare themselves to face consequent challenges. The reforms he suggested included multi-disciplinarity in legal studies, flexible curricula, improved service conditions for law teachers, continuing education programmes for legal professionals and placement-internship programmes for all students.

This subject has indeed received the attention of several expert committees recently, including the National Knowledge Commission and the Committee on Renovation and Rejuvenation of Higher Education (the Yash Pal Committee). These commissions and committees found three fundamental drawbacks in the objects, structure and content of legal education as it is being imparted in nearly a thousand law colleges in India, most of them functioning in the private sector.

First of all, the objects of legal education in the changing socio-economic context are neither clear nor prioritised. The Advocates Act and the Bar Councils seem to think that the only object of legal education is to produce lawyers to practise in courts. Today, people seek legal education for a variety of purposes: to meet the demands of trade, commerce, industry, governance and international relations. The practising profession itself is getting increasingly internationalised, warranting the study of other legal systems and practices. These multiple goals raise questions of content, structure and regulation.

Currently, the content of legal education is considered to be a function of the regulatory bodies (read Bar Council of India) and the universities are obliged to follow it. This has adversely affected curriculum development in terms of serving the multiple objects of legal education and inhibited innovation and experimentation that are essential for academic and professional excellence. In a sense, it has alienated law schools from its essential function of legal research and development.

Law grows when it engages with society and interacts with other branches of knowledge. Engagement with social problems and movements make legal education relevant and contextual. For this to happen, a liberal, holistic and decentralised approach to curriculum planning and development is necessary, for which each university teaching law should have the primary responsibility. This was the essence of the National Knowledge Commission's and the Yash Pal Committee's recommendations. In other words, according to the expert committees the future of legal education will depend on how the role of universities (law schools) is conceived on the one hand, and on what the goals and objects of legal education are determined to be, on the other. Whichever way one looks at the situation, one thing is clear: the existing regulatory mechanism under the Advocates Act, 1961 is far too weak and inadequate to chart the future course of legal education.

Access and equity are important considerations in higher education, and this is particularly so in law education. The Bar Council's efforts over the last 50 years did succeed in making the so-called legal education accessible to all sections and keeping the costs low for students. But in the process, quality was neglected or allowed to be diluted. Many universities practically avoided their responsibilities, and put the entire blame on the Bar Council. An attempt was made at the instance of the Bar Council to improve quality by introducing the five-year integrated LL.B. programme, and by establishing a series of autonomous National Law Schools. But they have remained islands “in a sea of mediocrity” — as the Prime Minister described it.

The challenge before legal educators and the regulators of higher education today is two-fold.

First, how to promote competitive excellence in a global context in the few National Law Schools and others of its kind that are maintaining some degree of quality in education. Secondly, how to take the mediocre institutions — which are too many in number — to improve their performance towards achieving some degree of professionalism and academic excellence in the shortest possible time.

The major problems cited in this regard are inadequacy of resources including lack of competent teachers in adequate numbers. Given that most of these institutions are privately managed and have very little investment and faculty resources, it is not possible to transform them unless the managements themselves mobilise the finances. Others that are in the government sector, including university departments, can prepare plans for development and seek funds from governments, Central and State. There exists a case to increase tuition fees and development charges while making the institutions provide better teaching and learning facilities to consumers of education.

Finally, if quality is to be improved the key institutions for regulating legal education should be the universities themselves. Let there be competition among universities to deliver quality educational services. The external regulator's function should be limited to setting goals, setting minimum standards, and facilitating the exercise of academic autonomy by individual institutions. In this regard, the proposal of the Knowledge Commission for a multi-member single regulator involving all stakeholders is an excellent idea that deserves attention. The shortage of teachers can be addressed partly through a flexible approach in faculty composition: this may include more visiting and adjunct teachers, partnership arrangements, contractual engagement of professionals and so on. There could also be an organised plan to prepare teachers by selected institutions with special support from government.

It will take a decade or more to create a research environment in the existing law schools, particularly for cutting-edge research that contribute to law reform and development. Meanwhile, the recommendation of the Knowledge Commission to set up a few advanced research centres that can attract available talent to plan and develop legal research is worthy of immediate attention. This is where the Central government should invest, as it did in the field of scientific and industrial research in the early 1960s and 1970s. They can be networked with the law schools of the region: this will be of mutual advantage.

The initiative on Second Generation Reforms developed by the Union Law Ministry (2010) and the Task Force on Legal Education constituted by the Union Ministry of Human Resource Development should work together to develop a plan of action to push forward the agenda of legal education reforms. This should serve not only the needs of the practising profession but also the emerging demands of society and government for law trained persons. The Judicial Academies training judges should tie up with selected law schools of the region to enrich the content and process of judicial education and training, while providing opportunities to law schools to understand and inform themselves of the problems and challenges of the administration of justice. Bar Councils should set up a chain of continuing legal education centres, similarly tying up with law schools for mutual benefit. What the nation needs now is an organised movement involving legal educators, lawyers and judges, not only to learn the practice of law but to transform law and legal institutions to maximise justice in society and to put legal education at the centre for better governance under democracy and rule of law.

(Professor N.R. Madhava Menon is founder-director of the National Law School of India in Bangalore, the National University of Juridical Sciences in Kolkata and the National Judicial Academy in Bhopal.)

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