Legal education in India: Will Covid-19 act as a catalyst for reforms?

Technology has enabled students in remote areas to access resource persons, literature and opportunities of internships online.

Online classes, webinars and masterclasses are a new normal for higher education. Legal education is not untouched with this phenomenon. However, the question is whether these measures are temporary or it would act as a catalyst for much desired reform in Indian legal education. Felix Frankfurter (1927) observed rightly, “The law is what the lawyers are, and the law and the lawyers are what the law schools make them.” A robust system of legal education is a prerequisite for the “noble” legal profession. The Law Commission in its 266th report has emphasised the dire need for maintenance of standards in legal education, as the seeds of nobility of the profession has to be sown at this stage. Ironically, a large number of committees and commissions have already spilled a lot of ink on suggesting various reform measures with still existing concerns of fake degrees and colleges.

The Bar Council of India (BCI) under the Advocates Act 1961 is tasked with maintenance of standards of legal education which it has been fulfilling through the mechanism of inspection of universities/colleges awarding “degree in law” and prescribing standards for legal education. Historically, the legal profession in India has been rooted in formalism with its own procedures and requirements etched in letters of law. So has been the legal education, being delivered by traditional law colleges within their limited means. If one looks at the timeline of reforms, transformation in legal education in India has been a bit sluggish. The first major reform could be noted as an introduction of the 5-years’ integrated law program offered by NLSIU Bangalore in 1986. It took about 10+ years for this reform to seep in, when the next law school (NALSAR) came into existence. Now over the last decade, we have seen mushrooming of law schools in every state.

A set of private centres of excellence in legal education have also emerged during this period, which shows the way towards making legal education global in India. The lockdown due to Covid-19 has shaken everyone, including the legal profession and the centres of legal education. At this point, agility in quick adaptation of technology and exploring the tools available to transform the systems to function with social distancing is being experimented. Courts have moved to online hearings (only urgent matters as of now), arbitrations and mediations are happening online, clients are being counselled over Zoom. While some legal professionals, being tech savvy, are enjoying and welcoming this, some are learning new technology and grappling with it, others are posing resistance to the thought of moving online post-Covid. It may be noted that use of technology in legal profession is not new. A transformation through Information and Communication Technology (ICT) enablement of Indian judiciary is being worked out since 2005. While the pace of reform has gained in the last few years with the Digital India campaign, measures like e-courts, national judicial data grid, etc., a full-blown transformation has not yet happened. This Covid situation, acting as a catalyst, now forces us to think upon the pace of this digital transformation in legal profession and, in turn, legal education. Rome was not built in a day, transformation will not happen in a day; however, if one keeps thinking like this, Rome will never be built. One has to begin thinking on future scenarios for using technology in the legal profession.

The seeds of transformation have to be sown in the present generation, which is preparing itself for the profession. Introduction of online learning mechanisms in legal education would be the need of the hour. There were three kinds of responses to the Covid-19 lockdown from legal educational institutions; (A) institutions with agility and reform mindset ramped up their already existing systems to serve students (B) institutions caught unaware by the situation tried to address the issue somehow with free online tools (C) institutions, which could not do anything, due to lack of agility, resources and, mostly, due to lack of reform mindset. I feel proud to be in Category A at UPES with a robust Learning Management System and trained faculty to handle the Hybrid Blended and Online (HBO) learning. We were able to engage students live in the online class rooms as per schedule, mentor them, and conduct their internal assessments and offer online examinations. However, in India, Category A is an exception, most of the institutions fell in Category B and many in Category C. Ramping up some institutions from Category B to A and bringing all institutions from Category C to B should be the focus of legal education reforms. While recommending this, one cannot lose sight of the fact that this country is diverse and there would be some strata of society not having access to resources. However, that should not act as a defence to throw the baby with the bathwater.

One has to think how the situation can be ameliorated and usefulness of digital transformation can be infused in the mindset. This would be the first step. Advantages of online legal education are plenty, not only for the advanced centres for legal education, but even for a law student staying in the remotest part of the country. I think technology has significantly enabled students in remote areas to access resource persons, literature and opportunities of internships online. Who could have imagined that a student of law in Jharsuguda would be able to hear Harish Salve argue in the International Court of Justice at The Hague, or a student from a village in Darbhanga could do a course from Yale through Coursera or a course from Harvard University through edX. I recollect waiting long for legal luminaries from Delhi/Bombay to address us in Nagpur only in annual functions. Today, a student can hear the who’s who in the comfort of his/her house and even interact with them in many live sessions like Legally Speaking. UGC in its recent guidelines on “Examination and Academic Calendar in view of Covid-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdown” has emphasised the need for promoting online learning and suggests provisioning of virtual classroom and video-conferencing facilities, training of faculty on these platforms, preparation of e-content, and practice by the faculty to complete their 25% teaching through online mode in post-Covid situation as well.

It is a welcome step and should also be embraced by the Legal Education Committee (LEC) of BCI. As Albert Einstein once said, “In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity”, this is the right time for the LEC of BCI to introduce reforms recognising the virtues of moving some part of legal education to the online mode and focusing upon legal education with an eye towards the future 5-10 years down the line. In coming days, we need legal professionals in plenty who could handle the situation in tough times and uphold the justice system serving the common man. It would be worth to end by quoting the Law Commission of India, “Legal education in India should be structured in a manner where the BCI, along with legal academics may endeavour to innovate, experiment and compete globally. A balance should be maintained in order to change the entire fabric of legal education system in India, keeping in mind the necessity of globalisation.” Prof. (Dr.) Vijay Kumar Singh is Dean, School of Law at UPES Dehradun. Views are personal.