“We have just few islands of excellence in the sea of mediocrity,” said Manmohan Singh, former Prime Minister in 2010 acknowledging the remarkable contribution made by National Law Schools. We have 20 such schools today with Maharashtra alone having as many as three. The admission to these schools through CLAT is in news yet again due to several errors in the question paper. It seems Bar council of India wants to take over admission test. The matter is in Supreme Court for last three years. National Law School of India University, Bangalore is now going to have domicile reservation like several other law schools as the Karnataka Assembly has recently passed a Bill on this subject. There is genuine concerns about its effect on the All India or national character of first law school.
NR Madhava Menon is considered father of legal education in India and was awarded Padmashree for his contribution. No one has so far brought in public domain real reason of establishment of National Law School at Bangalore. Thus there is need to put the origin of discipline specific law universities in the real historical perspective so that contribution of real heroes is acknowledged.
After the enactment of Advocates’ Act, 1961 the Bar Council of India(BCI) came into existence. Section 7(1) (h) gave it power to promote legal education and lay down standards of such education in consultation with universities. While its first Chairman M.C. Setalvad, also India’s first Attorney General along with other stalwarts in legal profession viz. C.K. Daphtary, Jagdish Swaroop etc. were engaged in improving the standard of legal education, a notice came to be served on BCI, by the Income Tax Department to pay tax on its revenue collected from enrollment fee. The tax planning, consequent to the IT notice, persuaded BCI to seek exemption under the appropriate provisions of IT Act by creating a Public Charitable Trust, in the name of Bar Council of India Trust. Among the avowed objectives of the said trust was to establish one or more model Law Colleges in India where legal education of high standard may be imparted, publish standard law books, grant scholarships to deserving and meritorious students, establish standard libraries in Delhi and other places, publish translation of various statutes and important textbooks in Hindi and other regional languages.
As documents were required to be produced before the Income Tax Department to show steps taken towards establishment of the aforementioned model Law College, BCI referred the matter to its statutory Legal Education Committee(LEC), constituting of 10 members- 5 elected from BCI and 5 others co-opted. As a practice, out of the 5 co-opted members, one used to be former Chief Justice of India and four were eminent professors from academia. It was a well balanced, well meaning prestigious committee, so much so that Justice M. Hidayatullah, former CJI in 1970, continued to be Chairman of LEC, even during the period (1979-84) he occupied the high constitutional post of Vice President of India, along with eminent lawyers like Ram Jethmalani, Ranjeet Mohanty, Rajendra Singh and Prof. Upendra Baxi from academics. For the Chairman, LEC meetings were high priority; he never skipped a meeting and of course LEC meetings used to be held at Vice President’s residence. This author was lucky to be a part of the LEC being the youngest member representing the Bar. Legal education received a new fillip under the stalwart leadership of Justice M. Hidayatullah, who in addition to the high constitutional offices he held, was an erudite scholar having Masters in Law from Cambridge University, LL.D. from University of Philippines.
One agenda of LEC was to consider establishment of Law colleges to fulfill the prominent objective of the Trust for seeking exemption under the provision of the Income Tax Act. Justice M. Hidayatullah spearheaded the concept of a Law School on the lines of Harvard Law School, which would be led by a diverse and dedicated group of faculty and law scholars, would be autonomous in nature, completely self-financed, not take any financial aid from Government or regulatory bodies and in turn not permit their interference. The vision of Justice Hidayatullah was discussed in a number of LEC meetings. Prof. Upendra Baxi, eminent jurist who was co-opted member of LEC undertook the spadework and the entire legal education scenario of the country was set to undergo a metamorphosis.
Incidentally, at the same time a Joint Consultative Committee of UGC and BCI recommended a 4 year integrated Law Course after 10+2 schooling. LEC, in its turn, recommended establishment of Law School (mono-university of Law) with 5 year double degree integrated Law Course. As an offshoot of its mono-university recommendation, BCI decided to scrap the earlier 3 year course which faced stiff opposition from academia throughout the country. The issue was taken up by a UGC and BCI Joint Panel, under the Chairmanship of Prof. Rais Ahmed which approved the Law school concept, but asked BCI to withdraw the decision to scrap 3 year degree course. Finally, in the year 1985, BCI resolved to allow both the 3 year and 5 year Law course to function simultaneously. BCI approached almost all the state Governments to help them in establishing Law schools under its stewardship. None of the State Governments showed any interest except the visionary Chief Minister of Karnataka Shri Ramkrishna Hegde. Consequently, a Law School denominated as National Law School of India University(NLSIU) was established at Bangalore in 1986. Hegde also provided 16 acres of land and a sum of Rs. 50 lakh with the Bar Council of India contributing just Rs. 20 lakh.
Prof Upendra Baxi was supposed to translate the Law school vision into reality since he had indeed conceived it with Hudaytullah and other members of LEC. Though he did not explicitly decline the responsibility but he had certain commitments in Delhi. After failing to find any other Law Professor to take up the role of Director of NLSIU Bangalore, BCI made an offer to Prof. Madhav Menon, Professor of Delhi University and a person acquainted with the goal as he was already working with BCI as part-time Secretary of the Bar Council of India Trust. Prof. Menon accepted the challenge and the first Batch of Law Graduates from Law School came out in the year 1993.
Fortunately, the passing out of the first batch coincided with the advent of economic liberalization in India, and a change in the outlook of traditional Indian business, which started becoming truly global. There was a dearth of lawyers to deal with the new economic complexities arising out of the Liberalization, Privatization & Globalization phenomenon. Thus, few corporate lawyers and chartered accountants hired these best young law graduates, mostly from NLSIU, and imparted rigorous training paving the way for rise of corporate law firm culture. Many pass outs of NLSIU went abroad for Post-Graduation and were also hired by international firms. High packages and an attractive career made the course popular. Thus NLSIU became the law education harbinger for almost 10 years when there was no other Law school in the field to compete.
Another significant development was constitution of Judges’ Committee headed by Justice A.M. Ahmadi, in pursuance of the resolution of Chief Justices’ Conference in December 1993, to suggest steps to be taken to improve the standard of legal education. Ahmadi Committee recommended establishment of NLSIU type law schools in every state and also recommended re-constitution of LEC in a manner which would reflect participation of representatives from Judiciary, Bar, UGC, MHRD and other stakeholders. Thus, after one decade of the establishment of NLSIU Bangalore; NALSAR at Hyderabad, NLIU at Bhopal, WBNUJS at Kolkata and NLU at Jodhpur were established as autonomous Law Universities.
While on this 30 year voyage- students and faculty of Law schools have certainly made a mark within and outside the country, given a fillip to legal education and as a result of their savoir-faire and impact of globalization, insured expansion of practice of law in diverse emerging fields, the State Governments, UGC and BCI after establishing Law schools have largely left them high and dry on the shoulders of respective Vice-Chancellors to acquire excellence and preserve the basic structure of the Law School concept i.e. autonomy by not receiving the maintenance grant. Applying the blind rule of one size fits all; these Law schools have been taken over by multiple organizations which treat these mono-Universities as their citadel- UGC by becoming a controller; the BCI has taken over by enforcing rigid curriculums, service regulations for the faculty and other staff, attendance, dress code etc. for students under the garb of recognition and affiliation; and State Governments and Committees appointed by the Courts have notified regulations on the matter of admission, age limit, fee etc. and diluted autonomy consistently. In this scenario of excessive interference, it is no use talking about listing any Law University even within the ambit of 500 best universities in the world as unlike our universities, foreign universities of excellence do not face such extensive interference. Let these universities be saved of judges, lawyers and UGC and BCI so that they demonstrate their real potential. Let us go back to original composition of LEC and let us acknowledge Hidayatullah, Jethmalani, Baxi Mohanty along with Menon as the founding fathers of these so called “islands of excellence.” Let these law universities mentor other law colleges as part of their corporate social responsibility and state governments realize that domicile reservation will take away the national character of these institutions which are a matter of pride for the state where these ‘islands of excellence’ are located. Let Bar Council of India too stay out of these institutions as without autonomy these institutions will not be able to compete with the leading law schools of the world.