Legal education and law schools are the foundation whose quality, workmanship and solidity determine the beauty, longevity and functional utility of the superstructure of law. But, in India, only a few dynamic and outstanding law schools remain islands of excellence amid a sea of institutionalised mediocrity.
A lawyer is to be a harmoniser, a reconciler, a legal architect, indeed an inventor. The character of law schools determines the character of the Bar and Bench. We must focus on tying up the existing corpus of rich data on legal education into a national legal education plan.
The democratisation of legal education is vital. We have to spread distributive equity over inclusive legal education. And the fact that no Indian law school — barring two — finds a place in the top 300 global law schools adds to the urgency of designing a road map to transform legal education.
First, our legal curricula must be made multidisciplinary, creative and flexible. We must integrate topics such as reforms in the justice delivery system, clinical legal education, practitioner’s workshops, legal writing and alternative dispute resolution into a national course module.
Second, there is the serious problem of law teachers, or the lack of them. Law teaching can attract young minds only by shortening the substantial financial gap between leaders of the Bar and teachers. Reciprocally, those under special remunerative schemes have to be bound by valid legal instruments to teach for a minimum duration. A pilot programme must create an alternative remuneration scheme with more public-private partnerships, greater autonomy and special financial terms.
Third, our law libraries are too few and poorly stocked. The latest technological tools of research must link each law school with the best sources of knowledge globally. A library cess levied only on senior advocates across the country must be operationalised for law libraries for maximum ground impact in urban and rural India.
Fourth, internships and post-degree placements have to be sewn up into a national scheme — today placements are ad hoc with no institutionalised system of matching applicants and hosts. Some students, especially with contacts, have the luxury of plenty, while several of their more talented but less influential colleagues fall by the wayside.
Fifth, a national scheme must ensure that senior practitioners, with expertise in particular areas, compulsorily take a minimum number of classes in lesser-endowed law schools. The legal educational sector, the Bar, the Bench, the corporate legal sector and law firms continue to function in silos of isolated splendour when the need is for the exact opposite— close, continuous, coordinated alignment qua legal education.
Sixth, even experienced and established lawyers, judges and other law persons must submit to periodic and continuing legal education programmes. Judges and lawyers alike should be ready for such short, structured, continuing legal education capsules.
Seventh, our National Law Schools shone because of three important innovations; academic autonomy by making each a stand-alone university; entrance through a strictly merit-based admission system based on a written test; and an integrated, professional five-year law programme plus curricula innovation. Why we don’t have this, even partially, in other Indian law schools, remains a mystery.
Eighth, the 2009 Bar Council resolution that all law schools should establish a legal aid centre to provide inexpensive and efficient advice to needy sections of society has been observed mostly in the breach.
Ninth, the negative impact of stratification of colleges has to be remedied. Central Universities set up by Parliament have their law faculty as the university’s law school. State universities are mostly affiliating universities for private law colleges.
There is an institutionalised mediocrity and dilution of academic standards in most of these affiliated colleges. Many do not have adequate and qualified faculty or law libraries with e-resources and no regular conduct of classes and examinations.
Tenth, phasing out of many existing colleges must be completed swiftly. The Madras high court said in 2017 that 85% of law colleges must be closed, an irony since the number has jumped from 800 in 2000 to 1,500 in 2019. The closure of at least 500 mediocre profit shops would minimise the sale of fake law degrees.
Eleventh, our starry-eyed view of five-year courses must not be at the cost of strengthening the three-year programme which must be made more rigorous and full-time.
Twelfth, the unique aspect of legal education in the United States (US) with its engagement between law firms, corporations, non–governmental organisations, legal aid centres, think tanks, government agencies and intergovernmental organisations, must be replicated in India.
Last, the elephant in the room must be addressed. The Bar Council has too many functions — law reform, disciplining lawyers, setting standards — to do justice to a full-time job like legal education. Electoral politics compromises its independence.
An empowered committee of academicians, chief justices and eminent lawyers should be set up or an independent, autonomous National Council for Legal Education and Research must be created to bring objectivity into the system.