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Raising the bar

A common entrance test for law schools is problematic....

Written by Shamnad Basheer |
April 28, 2010 2:19:47 am

The law minister recently announced that potential aspirants to any of the law schools or colleges in India would be subject to a common entrance examination. Many are likely to question the feasibility of such a pan-India examination and the merits or otherwise of an exclusive entrance exam-based approach towards selecting students. The point of this note,however,is to draw the law ministry’s attention to an already existing examination administered by an elitist set of law schools that go by the haloed name of “national law schools”.

For many years,these law schools,widely regarded as the premier legal institutions in the country,held their own examinations to test potential students on their aptitude for the study of law.

Pursuant to a petition that challenged the inconvenience occasioned to students from the conduct of multiple law entrances by the various law schools,the Supreme Court mandated the institution of a joint entrance exam. And thus was born CLAT or the Common Law Admission Test,currently administered by a club of 11 national law schools.

However,despite the trappings of a common entrance,the responsibility for conducting exams each year,particularly the setting of the question paper,lay primarily with an individual law school (decided by rotation each year). Indeed,the incumbent law school had almost unfettered discretion in determining the quality and content of the paper,sans any external review.

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In 2009,it was abruptly decided that “legal reasoning” would be dropped from the ambit of the CLAT paper. This jaw-dropping initiative by NALSAR,a Hyderabad-based law school,turns the concept of a legal entrance exam on its head. Wouldn’t “legal reasoning” be the most important test of legal aptitude and potential for study at a law school? Interestingly however,the paper that year had a separate section on “legal knowledge” testing candidates on their specific knowledge of court cases and legal doctrines. This section constituted 25 per cent of the total marks!

One wonders why law aspirants ought to come pre-loaded with the knowledge of the law. Shouldn’t they be tested instead for analytical abilities and legal aptitude,that is,a potential for the study of law?

By testing prior knowledge of the law,CLAT 2009 may have admitted students adept at cramming copious amounts of legal maxims in expensive coaching centres,but not necessarily those with demonstrable legal aptitude.

Most problematically perhaps,an exam that tests a candidate’s prior knowledge of the law ends up disadvantaging certain sections of society that may not have ready access to such sources of knowledge.

One is not suggesting that the standard of the exam be lowered to cater to such entrants,but merely that the nature of questions bear a rational nexus to one’s intrinsic potential for the study of law,without in any way discriminating against those from certain strata of society that are not “culturally” exposed to certain kinds of knowledge.

Illustratively,a student may be stumped by a question that assumes prior knowledge of “hole in one”,a golfing term likely to be most familiar to the urban elite.

Apart from a worrying lack of consistency and external review,the current CLAT process exacerbates existing inequities. For one,the cost of a CLAT application is Rs 2,500 for all students,with no concessions in favour of poor students. Given that the CLAT process is likely to have yielded more than Rs 4 crore last year,reducing these fees will not seriously bankrupt the CLAT collegium. Second,copies of past exams are only available at the law schools for a fee. In this day and age of open access,one wonders why such papers are not available for free download on the CLAT website. Third,CLAT has no documented policy on access to disabled students,despite the promise of 3 per cent reservations at most law schools for this sector. And last,CLAT does not make any concession to those from vernacular-medium schools who may be blessed with exceptional legal aptitude but cannot compete on a level playing field with those educated in English-medium schools.

A current initiative of which I am part seeks to redress this “access” issue to some extent. At its very core,the IDIA (Increasing Diversity by Increasing Access to Legal Education) project seeks to find ways to reach out to hitherto under-represented groups,sensitise them to law as a career option and help those interested in acquiring admission to these law schools by imparting intensive CLAT training,including English training.

One hopes that the law ministry will give some serious consideration to this “access” issue,as they set about conceptualising an optimal model to screen potential students for the study of a socially transformative instrument called “law”.

The writer is the Ministry of HRD Professor of IP law at NUJS,Kolkata

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