Reforming Legal Education
One of the most important pillars of the justice delivery system is legal education. Its significance can be gauged from the fact that the quality of legal education is bound to enhance standards, productivity and efficiency of other pillars of the system: judiciary and lawyers. This short article explains the adverse impact of commercialization of legal education through the process of affiliation by various universities, and suggests that this process be arrested and even brought backwards if we are interested in initiating any meaningful transformation in the domain of legal education.
Over the years, legal education has been excessively commercialized and various interest groups have amassed such a manoeuvring space that at present it has become difficult, if not impossible, to regulate them through the available legal framework. The regulatory bodies (universities and Supreme Court Bar Council) which have been entrusted with the task to regulate legal education have either been losing energy or lacking willingness to implement the prescribed rules and procedures. On the other hand, groups having interest in commercialization of legal education have swollen into giants and even managed to get through or prevent various amendments in the available legal framework for the purpose of protection and promotion of their businesses.
Having made some introductory remarks, I would keep my analysis confined to the University of the Punjab and its affiliated colleges in this article. Considering the fact that there is a case pending in this matter before the Lahore High Court, I would attempt to be as precise as one could be in such a situation. In less than a decade, the number of affiliated law colleges has doubled and many of them lack the requisite infrastructure physically as well as academically. They are machines to mint money at the cost of destruction of legal education. The rules of affiliation of the Punjab University state that no law college would be given affiliation if it does not have four kanals of land and prescribed building structure. Unfortunately, less than half of the affiliated colleges fulfil this basic requirement. The rules further require that some faculty members, including a principal, should be permanently employed by the affiliated colleges. The rules are elaborate as to the requirement of establishing a library in each affiliated law college. But many such rules are flaunted with impunity. Barring some colleges, many do not conduct regular classes and still retain a claim to impart professional education for one of the most important professional degrees. The fault does not lie with the affiliated colleges exclusively – the university and its officials manage many issues for the affiliated colleges so that they might not face de-affiliation or other penal consequences. For instance, inexperienced and friendly experts are deputed by the administration to visit the affiliated colleges, which consequently prevents any meaningful exercise of scrutiny during the visits.
One important drawback of the rules of affiliation of various universities is that they prescribe the infrastructural requirements as mentioned above and whichever institution meets those requirements can apply to secure affiliation with the university. The rules do not make any assessment mechanism mandatory before granting a new affiliation with an object to ascertain whether there is a genuine need for affiliating a new institution or not, meaning thereby that all those who meet minimum infrastructural requirements are legally entitled to claim affiliation and that no further scrutiny as to the necessity of a new affiliated law college is required. This flaw in the rules has generated an impression that the affiliation is a mechanical process, whereas it is not. Ideally a new affiliation should only be granted considering numerous factors, e.g. lack of university’s own infrastructural setup to teach and train the requisite number of graduates, real demand for more fresh graduates in a particular discipline in the market, and capability of the institution to coach students as per the standards observed in the university to give an impression as if an affiliated college is an extension of the university itself. Unfortunately, these factors are not considered while conducting the process of affiliation.
Another noteworthy omission from the available legal framework of the affiliated colleges is that a student admitted to a particular college is not allowed to switch to another college within the same city. A move was once initiated to bring an amendment to this rule, but the interest groups owning various law colleges furiously voiced against it. The purpose of such an amendment was to give the law students an opportunity to opt for another college if they were not satisfied with the quality of education imparted at the college of their first choice. Such an amendment was likely to bring healthy competition, but the majority of the colleges were not comfortable with it as it was likely to affect their business adversely. In addition to healthy competition among various colleges, such an opportunity of switching to another institution would reduce the fees charged by colleges. Some affiliated law colleges charge relatively less fee from the students in the first year and then impose higher fees during the remaining years as students cannot leave the same educational institution.
About two years ago, the Legal Education Committee of Supreme Court Bar Council formulated new rules for the affiliation and structure of legal education in the country. This committee straight away shut down the traditional three-year LL.B program throughout the country and replaced it with the five-year LL.B program. Previously, the five-year LL.B program had been conducted exclusively at public sector universities, while affiliated law colleges despite their earnest desire to start this program had not been successful in getting affiliation of this prestigious program. The new rules provided them with a great opportunity to swiftly switch to the five-year LL.B without any substantial requirements as to developing additional infrastructure and improving upon the presently deficient superstructure. The affiliated colleges are extremely happy over this so-called quality conscience initiative as it has once again rejuvenated their business. The affiliated law colleges can earn more as the law students would spend five years under their supervision instead of three.
Interestingly enough, the issue is not confined to business interest exclusively – the move for initiating the five-year LL.B was one which had not been thoroughly deliberated upon as it ought to have been before making it into a law. The five-year program is comprised of three years of LL.B courses while the first two years of education are for the prescribed social science subjects whose standard is supposedly equivalent to a Bachelor of Arts degree. The Punjab University does not grant affiliation for the Bachelor of Arts degree to any private college unless that college meets certain requirements. But in the case of the affiliated law colleges, no such requirement has been prescribed anywhere and they have supposedly met the basic criteria for imparting the two-year Bachelor of Arts degree (first two years of the five-year LL.B program) without doing anything additional in this respect. This kind of special favour was not even expected by the affiliated colleges, but the fact of the matter is that they are once again on the receiving end.
Another drastic step introduced by the recently enacted Legal Education Rules of the Supreme Court Bar Association is to bring the public sector and private affiliated colleges at par with each other by fixing the maximum number of students allowed to be admitted in one session. This so-called reform initiative has brought both the public sector and the affiliated colleges (the regulator and the regulated respectively) at the same level despite the fact that public sector institutions are far ahead of affiliated colleges in many respects. Public sector law colleges provide quality education at the cost of extremely low fees in spacious and well-managed campuses. Here, let me be very clear that I am not suggesting that everything in public sector institutions is working idealistically or that all private affiliated colleges are the curse.
Many competent aspirants of legal education apply for admission into public sector institutions due to lower fees and the availability of scholarships (merit and need based) and such candidates do not dare knock the door of affiliated colleges because of higher fees. The affiliated colleges more often than not cater to the needs of the financially solvent candidates irrespective of their competency and merit. Since the public sector has shrunk a lot owing to the maximum number of seats offered and the affiliated colleges have been more concerned about their business instead of attracting capable aspirants of a law degree, this legally driven blow has set to expose the legal profession to many ailments in the future. It would structurally exclude many otherwise competent law aspirants from the profession. Moreover, the growing trend in middle class to allow their females to pursue legal education would be substantially thwarted as they would be discouraged by the higher fees charged by the affiliated law colleges.
Fixation of the maximum number of seats offered in law colleges has increased the share of affiliated colleges to a disproportionate extent in comparison with public sector institutions. There are more than 40 affiliated law colleges with the Punjab University at present and all colleges including the Punjab University Law College Lahore and Law Departments at other two campuses of the University in Gujranwala and Jhelum, have the same number of students. This means that the share of the public sector has effectively reduced to approximately 7% of the student body which is appearing in the annual examination for its first year of the five-year LL.B program after the introduction of the new rules for reforming legal education. This disproportionate share of the students of affiliated law colleges would soon reflect in bar politics as democracy, at whatever level it may be, is always in need of numbers more than quality. This means that our bar councils will soon be dependent on students graduating from the affiliated colleges while the interest groups of affiliated colleges which are not manageable even at present would in future amass extraordinary manoeuvring power in the legal arena.
Before parting with the analysis, I would suggest certain measures to arrest the deteriorating situation of legal education:
- First of all, no new affiliation should be granted to any private law college by all public sector universities.
- Secondly, the number of affiliated law colleges should be halved within the next five years. This could be done by initiating healthy competition among the affiliated law colleges. Those who remain at the lowest considering examination results or non-observance of other tangible criteria for consecutive two years could be de-affiliated.
- Thirdly, no district should have more than one affiliated law college at any rate. If there are two or more than two at the moment, they should be informed that the fittest among them would survive after three years’ grace period. Big cities like Lahore could be treated differently, but in any case, such cities should not have more than a dozen private affiliated law colleges.
- Fourthly, public sector institutions should be treated differently from private sector affiliated law colleges, and their autonomy as to the initiation of new programs through their own bodies and the number of students should be respected and strengthened.
- Last but not least, a broad-based commission manned by the members of various legal sectors, including academia, bar councils and judiciary, should be formulated and thorough consultation be conducted before the introduction of any future planning of legal education.
There is no need to further emphasize that piecemeal curative measures can only augment the ailment as has been witnessed in case of the latest reform initiative of the Supreme Court Bar Council.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of CourtingTheLaw.com or any organisation with which he might be associated.