An intervention that will help strengthen legal education

The recommendations made by the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Personnel, Public Grievances, Law, and Justice, on research and other issues, are timely

Updated - February 16, 2024 12:53 am IST

Published - February 16, 2024 12:08 am IST

‘The committee emphasises the need to prioritise and promote research in legal education, which, in turn, will lead to better teaching outcomes and help students develop a critical perspective’ 

‘The committee emphasises the need to prioritise and promote research in legal education, which, in turn, will lead to better teaching outcomes and help students develop a critical perspective’  | Photo Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

The Parliamentary Standing Committee on Personnel, Public Grievances, Law, and Justice recently submitted a significant report on legal education, making several path-breaking recommendations to strengthen the quality of legal education in India. Since Independence, legal education, unlike medicine and engineering, has not been a top priority for India’s policymakers.

Things started to change for the better in the 1990s with the advent of the national law universities (NLUs) in India. Buoyed by the winds of liberalisation and globalisation, the Indian economy in the 1990s threw up many new opportunities for lawyers, which, in turn, led to bright young students opting to study law right after school. Several NLU graduates got placed in high-paying law firm jobs while many others went abroad to study at top universities, with quite a few bagging prestigious scholarships such as Rhodes and Chevening.

However, the same cannot be said about hundreds of other law schools nationwide that essentially represent a “sea of institutionalized mediocrity”. Most of the NLUs too, while successfully attracting excellent students, have failed to emerge as centres of excellence in legal research. This is borne by the fact that only two Indian law schools, Jindal Global Law School and National Law School of India University, figure in the QS rankings of the top 250 law schools worldwide.

A new regulator

Against this backdrop, a key recommendation of the committee is to limit the powers of the Bar Council of India (BCI) to regulate legal education. The BCI’s role in regulating legal education that pertains to acquiring basic eligibility to practise in the courts is indispensable.

However, several other facets of legal education, especially at the post-graduation level, do not pertain to litigation. The committee recommends, and rightly so, that regulating these parts of legal education should be entrusted to an independent body called the National Council for Legal Education and Research (NCLER). This proposed body will develop qualitative benchmarks to regulate legal education. Eminent legal academicians who deposed before the parliamentary committee batted for the creation of the NCLER. In addition to judges and practising lawyers, the NCLER should have eminent law professors with an unimpeachable track record of research and serving legal education.

Bolstering research

Many of India’s 1,700-odd law schools principally focus on teaching, with scant attention to research. Consequently, India is chiefly the consumer of legal knowledge generated in the West, not its producer. An important data point that reveals this is that out of more than 800 law journals globally indexed in Scopus (an internationally recognised database that lists leading journals in all fields) barely a handful are Indian law journals. This shows the abysmally poor level of research in India’s law schools.

The committee emphasises the need to prioritise and promote research in legal education, which, in turn, will lead to better teaching outcomes and help students develop a critical perspective. As Albert Einstein said, “The value of a college education is not the learning of many facts but the training of the mind to think” To strengthen research, there is a need to recruit “world class global faculty who are top researchers”. While this is easier said than done, the fact that the committee has highlighted this aspect is an encouraging development.

As the committee remarks, augmenting the research ecosystem in our law schools undoubtedly involves a greater need for state funding. Bolstering research will also equip India’s law schools to thrive in the globalising world. The committee is cognisant of the effect of globalisation on legal education. It thus correctly recommends developing and delivering a global curriculum, promoting student and faculty international exchange programmes, incorporating more international law courses in the curriculum, and increasing students’ exposure to different legal systems.

Changing mindsets

The parliamentary committee’s suggestions are like a breath of fresh air that may help many law professors keep their chin up. In some form or the other, such suggestions have been made before. But none of this will be implemented as long as higher education does not become the topmost priority for everyone.

Additionally, legal education reform is impossible without these: first, the leadership positions in our university’s law faculties and law schools should be held by passionate, charismatic, and visionary academicians who inspire and create an enabling and supportive environment that allows younger academicians to realise their potential as outstanding teachers and brilliant researchers. Sadly, barring a few notable exceptions, the deans of law faculties and vice-chancellors of law universities in India have failed to provide professional leadership. These flawed academic leaders detest talented professors and are the biggest bottleneck in striving for excellence. No amount of money or perks can overcome such a primary institutional deficiency.

Second, to boost the culture of legal research in our law schools, there should be complete academic freedom and autonomy. As Jawaharlal Nehru said, “a university stands for humanism, for tolerance, for reason, for the adventure of ideas and for the search of truth”. A law school or any other academic institution can accomplish this goal only if academicians are free to offer their well-researched views without any fear, even if these views are at variance with popularly held beliefs in society or contest the dominant ideas of the time.

The parliamentary committee’s intervention is a welcome development, and one expects all stakeholders to work together to improve the quality of legal education in India.

Prabhash Ranjan teaches at the Faculty of Legal Studies, South Asian University. The views expressed are personal

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