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Legal education in India is at a crossroads. The emergence of a new type of law graduate...

Written by Sudhir Krishnaswamy |
April 18, 2009 12:52:31 am

Legal education in India is at a crossroads. The emergence of a new type of law graduate (with a 5 year dual degree in arts and law) from the National Law School Bangalore coincided with the liberalisation of the Indian economy and the demand for transactional/corporate lawyers. The high salaries and assured placement of these new graduates fuelled a euphoric two decades where several National Law Universities (NLUs) were set up funded primarily through high tuition fees,ranging from Rs 50,000 to 1,25,000 per annum. However,the looming recession means that,for the first time since the advent of the NLUs,job prospects for the 2008-9 graduating batches looks uncertain. These uncertainties have provoked the student community to reconsider the quality of education and infrastructural facilities being provided by these NLUs.

As several news-reports chronicled,the students at the Hidayatullah National Law University,Raipur (HNLU) went on strike from March 9 to 23rd 2009 demanding the removal of the Vice Chancellor and improvement in their academic and living conditions. In the last few days the strike has revived with students on a hunger strike within the campus. While there are some concerns with whether the methods of protest were appropriate or strategically successful,there is little doubt that the ongoing strike highlights substantive areas of concern. Let me focus on two such areas. One of the primary complaints of the students was that many of the faculty were ill-qualified or incapable of teaching — or both. This is not a complaint particular to HNLU: the students on strike put up a chart outlining the qualifications of faculty across the NLUs that demonstrates the woeful state of academic life in the NLUs. The Report of the National Knowledge Commission Working Group on Legal Education confirms this.

A second source of concern is the poor infrastructural facilities provided to the students. The hostels are poorly designed,barely furnished and often badly maintained. The hostel food is indifferent and the IT and Library facilities at a majority of NLUs are modest at best. Most universities in India would do no better on these counts: the recent death of a student due to ragging in Himachal Pradesh and the death of a student in IIT Kharagpur due to neglect in the university medical centre suggests that these concerns are more widespread. However,the difference lies in the NLU’s claim to provide students with the best legal education and tuition fees charged. The high fees and the high expectations that this generates creates an expectation gap that students expect will be met. While university administrators have previously been immune to student pressures to ensure better living conditions and infrastructural facilities,the HNLU strike demonstrates that they will hereafter confront new forms of collective action that may not be so easily overcome.

The Bar Council of India has made new Rules on legal education in 2008. These rules ostensibly improve the quality of legal education by confining it to full time ‘serious’ students. They also prescribe a new structure for the integrated five year BA,BSc and BBM LLB programmes and the three year LLB programmes. The rules emphasise the non-law elements of the dual degree and an overall reduction in the number of compulsory subjects to be taught at the Law School. These rules may respond to some of the academic concerns raised by the students at the NLUs but certainly don’t go far enough to check the overall malaise in Indian legal education. The National Knowledge Commission Working Group on Legal Education recommended that the Bar Councils be divested of their regulatory control over legal education as they neither had the expertise or interest in these issues and their track record of securing quality legal education is rather poor. In this context,it is unlikely that the impetus for change will come from the Bar Council of India.

Most chronicles on the growth and success of the National Law Universities are filled with hagiographic accounts of the role played by larger than life vice-chancellors and faculty. However,no accurate and critical account of the NLU phenomenon is complete without acknowledging that the key vector behind the success of the NLUs is a new kind of student who began to enter legal education lured by a competitive entrance exam and assured careers after graduation. The minor and major insurrections staged by the student community have often brought the most progressive and enduring reform to these NLUs. This is ignored in most academic and official histories of the NLUs. The recent strike at HNLU is a stark reminder that the most strident demands for even the most basic of prerequisites for any university: adequate infrastructure and academic quality — are demands raised by the student community. The administrators of these NLUs will have to decide whether they will heed these demands and assure future generations of law students with a quality legal education or ride roughshod over these protests and condemn the NLU experiment in legal education to the dustbins of history.

The writer is Professor of Law at the National University of Juridical Sciences,Kolkata

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