When I visualise the status quo, I see a legal education system that holds a world of possibilities waiting to be explored. As I sit and listen intently to my professor lecturing us on the fundamental rights enshrined under Part III of our Constitution, my mind wanders. I cannot help but think about countless students just like me, who have never come across these rights; students who do not have the privilege to have an education of their choice.
I believe that the problems that face our legal education system today, can be classified into ‘urban’ and ‘non-urban’ problems. When late Professor Dr. Madhava Menon established the five year integrated LLB program in National Law Schools, he had in mind a dynamic system that pushed for excellence; a system that provided education of the highest standard. What he envisioned was perhaps institutions with diverse academic environments, where students from different social, economic and cultural backgrounds could engage and discuss pressing issues, while simultaneously prompting socio-legal change.
Today we have scores of law schools, both government and private, offering a wide range of courses and programmes to law aspirants. Yet, in my mind, numerous problems plague these institutions. Deficiency of quality educators, overly rigid curriculums, peer-pressure, too little practical training, and institution-based discrimination are only the tip of the ice-berg. “Premier” law schools foster dog-eat dog environments in which success is equated to a plump salary at the end of the course; environments, I am no stranger to. Competition overshadows the learning process and certificates become identification marks of winners. We are taught to play a zero-sum game and fight for positions that in all likelihood, do not align with our real interests.
Notwithstanding these problems, I believe that the real issues we need to tackle are the ‘non-urban’ problems that hide far away from the comfortable confines of our law schools. To elaborate, I would like to draw from a personal experience. When I was working with a tribal rights NGO in Kerala, I managed to spend a considerable amount of time with tribal students from government schools. These students had completed their higher secondary education and were deciding which college to apply to. When I asked them if they were interested in pursuing a legal education, many of them answered in the affirmative. Despite this, they had chosen not to apply to law school for various reasons. For some, the tuition fee was too high; for others it was the fear of competing with students from the city and not being able to clear entrance tests. Some others did not have the means to attend coaching classes and had little to no information about the application process itself. This incident spoke volumes about the plight of a legal education system that only catered to the needs of a few. Ground reality was a blatant violation of the law itself.
In my opinion, the goal of legal education is to train and equip students from different backgrounds to understand legal theory, analyse the law and work to uphold the values embodied in our society. It is for those trained in the law to find their place in society, challenge injustice and represent those who cannot speak for themselves.
It was in the landmark decision of State of Maharashtra v. Manubhai Pragaji Vashi, that the Supreme Court emphasised the need for a continuing, well-organised legal education system to meet growing challenges and address the complexities of different situations. The Apex Court concurred with the Division Bench’s earlier view that it was the State’s duty to ensure that appropriate grants are made to non-governmental colleges so as to prevent any discrimination between institutions. The Division Bench had logically pointed out that if students are deprived of practicing a calling of their choice, society as a whole will be deprived of legal assistance. In spite of such praiseworthy judgements, the sad truth appears that students from less privileged backgrounds still choose to opt out of legal education simply because the odds are stacked against them.
Honourable Justice Krishna Iyer once said, “Society is guilty if anyone suffers unjustly.” This statement is particularly relevant in the context of our legal education system today. Be it the education facilities provided, quality of teaching, or co-curricular and extra-curricular opportunities available, the disparities are glaringly obvious and are increasing every day.
A lot needs to be done to make our system more inclusive. We must start by creating awareness about legal education, our laws and career prospects for students from less privileged communities. A sound legal education can open up a million opportunities. It can transform into a system that gives birth to dedicated lawyers, paralegals, court officers, researchers, law teachers, diplomats, and NGO workers- the prospects are endless.
For this, it is imperative for the government to work in tandem with the objectives sought by policy makers and academics. State governments can provide examination training to students in rural communities and schools, free of cost and in their vernacular languages in order to motivate more students to take entrance tests for law school. Organising interactive sessions between students in law schools within the city and students in non-urban areas can help reduce the fear of being left out in a new social environment. Law schools can also introduce mentorship programs in their curriculums to encourage their students to teach and guide students from less privileged backgrounds. Offering course credits to students for pro bono work and community service can be incorporated. Apart from the fixed quota for socially and economically backward sections, law schools must be made to compulsorily provide scholarships on a means cum merit basis, to push more students to pursue a legal education. In order to create a strong, progressive legal education system, we need to first make legal education accessible to all. We can begin by creating more inclusive and participatory environments in the very legal institutions that mould and prepare our young minds for the future.