Author: Apoorv Shrivastava, Advocate at Chattisgarh High Court, Bilaspur(C.G).
The research involves the analysis of the present status of legal education of India due to the effect of Covid-19 pandemic in the country. Many questions and genuine concerns arise to seek a valid answer to the ongoing problem where the situation has put the law students in a confined and limited environment devoid of all the practical aspects of legal education. It is a fact that under the conditions which arose due to the emergence of the Covid-19 pandemic, the legal education has witnessed a drastic change thereby changing the entire system of learning. The modes of legal and any branch of education have changed from physical classes to the online classes. But the wide spread social and economic inequality pan India is a challenge which is the major concern because only 30 percent students have a personal multimedia device like a smart phone, tablet, pc or a laptop to access the online classes with an uninterrupted or clear network. If such a situation of pandemic continues to exist for a longer time or gets repeated in some other form i.e. if it continues for years or in future a similar situation arises, then the present methods of online learning have to be improved with affordability and better reaching capacity to even those who have been unwillingly ignored due to the unavailability of the resources. However, one good aspect of the online learning has been the online webinars of respected senior advocates and the Hon. Judges of the Supreme Court and High Courts which are easily available through various applications even to students of the remotest areas of the country which did not exist before the pandemic. So we can say that with the changing conditions the results will also change and may be the coming change would enhance the ease of learning.
As per the report of the Ministry of Human Resource Development, Government of India conducted a survey on higher education and observed that there are 993+ universities, 39931+ Colleges and 10725+ Stand Alone Institutions listed on their portal, which contribute to education. These institutions further reflect the student density of India as the total enrolments in higher education every year are nearly 37.4 million. The sector was seen catching pace by the passing day until Coronavirus impacted the country intensely. The current pandemic is not only seen affecting the health of the citizens in the country but is also seen hindering various industries and shaking them to their roots. The national lockdown and the ascending health crisis were striking the education of the students as well, with their universities being shut and their syllabi stranded, until the industry decided to initiate a revolution instead. Reinventing their radicals and making a conscious choice to grow even in the time of crisis, the universities decided to digitize the sector. The educational reform in India in the COVID-19 era seems to be a live example of how need truly is the mother of invention or reinvention, in this scenario. Allowing educational institutions to adopt online learning and infuse a virtual study culture, the pandemic is already steering the sector forward with technological innovation and advancements. The switch to online education has been ensuring that students suffer no loss of studies and their progress is being tracked simultaneously with timely evaluation. It is probably a first for India to experiment with the education system and make a paradigm shift to the virtual world, blending classrooms with online learning. Alchemising education with technology and forming a collaborative strategy to tread ahead while providing online lectures will also enable the students to learn creatively. Boosting retention of the syllabus by using innovative technology, the universities are also engaging students to learn by choice and not just by their physical presence in a classroom. Furthermore, providing AI-enabled learning by universities as they offer diverse courses in association with other collaborations is only making the country envision a new tomorrow based on educational reforms. For instance, medical students can opt for interactive sessions to discuss specific case studies, engineering aspirants could delve into the depths of environmental engineering and city planning along with the mentors playing videos and conducting online moot sessions for law enthusiasts and much more. In fact, some of the universities are also offering courses related to the fourth industrial revolution, which will stimulate the minds of the students and inspire them to bring a change in their respective fields. Gaining popularity worldwide, online education is nourishing a lot many inquisitive students, instead of giving in to the circumstances. One of the opportunities to focus amidst the crisis is the virtual internships, which are allowing the students to go beyond their curriculum and learn about the practicality of their professions. Another value addition for the field of education and thus students is the way universities are encouraging them to observe the current scenario and understand the need to automate. This will further allow them to digitize their fields in the near future along with preparing them for any such situations. This practice will instill more confidence than chaos or panic. Apart from interactive and virtual learning, the universities are teaching much more than just syllabus. They are sensitizing their faculty to tackle the situation wisely. Online support groups along with emotional help by lecturers are only strengthening the system. Educating the students simultaneously about their anxiety, the current state of chaos, fears and emotions is not only preserving their sanity but also making them aware of how it is only natural for them to be in such distress amidst the crisis. Improving their emotional intelligence, this, coupled with the UGC’s guidelines of providing psychological support to students will transform the education system for good. Even though the country has been adapting to the new-age learning, but there still lies an obstacle in making the endeavors entirely successful. What still remains intact is that only 45 crore people of our total population of the country have access to the internet and thus to e-learning. The people residing in rural areas are still very much deprived of the latest advancements and therefore hampering the cause of online learning. Now, virtual classrooms are not only dependent on e-lectures but also require one to have access to the e-content and online study material, practise sheets etc. as well. And that’s where we lag behind as India is not fully equipped to make education reach all corners of the nation via digital platforms or online classrooms. The students who aren’t privileged like the others will be held back due to the current resort and there is no denying that. But universities and the government of India are relentlessly trying to come up with a solution to resolve this problem. With the major impact of the Covid – 19 pandemic on the education sector, the online classes, webinars and smart online classes 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 emphasized the dire need for maintenance of standards in legal education, as the seeds of nobility of the profession have 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. 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. 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.
Category A at institutes had a robust Learning Management System and trained faculty to handle the Hybrid Blended and Online (HBO) learning. They 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.
The impact of Covid-19 can be seen in the following ways:
- Impact in the day to day life of the individuals like students, teachers, lawyers, business men, labors and workers.
- It created a social distance between the students and essential people and elements which are part of their learning process.
- It has codified new norms of Legal Education in India.
- Impact in the education centers, hubs, research houses, market, courts, colleges, universities.
- Created a virtual platform, a virtual voice and a virtual world.
The incidental impact is that Covid19 had put a strong impact not only to the individuals or a market or a zone but to almost every country in the world more or less. According to the academicians and subject matter experts these are the phases took place following Covid19 merits and demerits:
- There are challenges maintaining admissions.
- Data consideration
- In terms of competency and effectiveness.
- In terms of technological competency merely e-Courts, lawyers, knowhow of technology usage.
- Online delivery of reports, results, certification, registration, court matters, classes, admissions.
- Online internship opportunities
- Moot court exercises online.
- Empathy creation and effective learning.
Moreover, the impact on future has also been forecasted of which these are:
- Online Delivery structure
- Distance learning
- Research Dimensions.
The effect is widely divided among the two categories of Law Schools:
- Highly Funded Law Schools
- Non-Funded Law Schools
With the impact of Covid19 the highly funded law schools have not faced the very adverse effects of Covid 19 and the dynamics have been easier for highly funded law schools. As they already had the complete necessary system to adhere to the teachings by online mode to their students.
Challenges for non-funded or non-national law schools:-
- Challenges are to be faced with the through process of education system.
- This is where the technology is not a life line for the general law schools except National law schools.
- Complications with the online modulation.
- Incomplete lessons delivery with online technology is a persisting issue and barrier for students of rural areas.
BCI, MEASURES & ISSUES
In India legal education is regulated by the Bar Council of India (BCI). During complete nationwide lockdown in April 2020, it appealed to all law schools for resuming their classes but online. They were asked to cover their syllabuses as much as feasible practically and once the lockdown was withdrawn, the Bar Council of India had proposed institutions to conduct extra classes, clinical education and allied activities for comprehensive learning. They had also asked for detailed reports highlighting the actions taken according to their directive. The BCI General Council considered legal education and its student’s overall interest when taking this decision in due consultation with the organization’s Legal Education Committee. The apex body has also appreciated the commencement of online classes by National Law Universities and various Centres for Legal Education. In early June 2020, BCI released promotion guidelines of law students to the succeeding year. However, those in their final year were permitted to appear in online examinations or avail alternate methods as the concerned University deems appropriate. Nevertheless, what was long an illusionary concept got implemented in breath-taking speed during an unanticipated occurrence like COVID-19. It has incited to reconsider the conventional mode of education and adopt innovative approaches, bringing digital learning to the centre-stage. The decision was taken by BCI General Council in consultation with its Legal Education Committee, keeping in view the overall interest of legal education and the students, the BCI mentioned in the letter dated April 24, 2020. Earlier, several vice- chancellors, principals and deans of law schools had sought clarification from BCI on the issue. The Bar Council also asked law schools to hold extra classes and allied activities during this period. The implications of not conducting classroom lectures, practical training and clinical legal education programmes will be considered at an appropriate time and necessary instructions will be issued in this regard, said the BCI. The BCI then sought detailed compliance reports from all Centres of Legal Education by May 10, 2020. The Bar Council expressed hope that its directions would be followed in letter and spirit. The BCI also appreciated the fact that National Law Universities (NLUs) and several other Centres of Legal Education had already commenced online classes. The BCI noted that since computer education is a compulsory protocol as per Rule-9(a)(b) of Schedule-III of Rules of Legal Education – 2008, every student is supposed to be computer savvy and capable to understand and follow the regime of online classes. Seeing the concerns of the academics and the crises, the Bar Council of India (BCI) had asked all law universities to hold online examinations for final-year students in view of the pandemic, leaving students and lawyers worried about poor Internet connectivity and the sanctity of the process. The BCI, which regulates law education, has asked institutions to make alternative arrangements for students who are unable to take the online tests. But it has not laid down what these arrangements are to be. On 27th May 2020, BCI secretary Srimanto Sen wrote to the vice-chancellors and registrars of all law universities that the general council of the BCI had approved guidelines, in keeping with detailed guidelines issued by the University Grants Commission (UGC) in April, for the conduct of online exams. “Final year students of 3 years and 5 years courses may be allowed to appear in online examinations. However, the universities must adopt an alternative strategy for conducting examination for those students who are unable to avail the online examinations for any reasons,” Sen’s letter said. There are 1,170 law colleges in India, 807 private and 363 government-run. Nearly two and a half lakh students graduate from these colleges every year after completing either the five-year BA LLB course or the three-year LLB course. A final-year BA LLB student of the Indian Law Society Law College affiliated to Pune University, said Internet connectivity was the main concern of the students. “Most students have gadgets like laptops or tabs or desktops. But the issue is about the quality of Internet service. It is very poor in rural Maharashtra, from where most of our students come,” said the student. Many students said that the sanctity of the exam could also be compromised if the process went online. “Proctoring will be difficult in online tests. Students will get greater scope to take help of websites and friends. The standard of the test will be questioned,” she said. In a batch in a law school there were 250 students who were to take the 10th semester test. Almost half of the students had got the job offers from law firms. They may still join work with undertakings that they will submit pass certificates later. But those looking for jobs or planning higher studies will need the certificate immediately. “Like many other institutions, the BCI should advise the law institutions to award grades on the basis of previous assignments,” students said. According to the BCI’s letter, the intermediate semester students had to be promoted on the basis of performance of previous years and marks obtained in internal examinations of the current year. The end semester examinations for the pre-final-year students should be held within a month of reopening of the colleges. It is fine to say that conduct online examinations. Considering that legal education in the country is still underdeveloped, its implementation is going to be a hard task. Poor connectivity, transparency of the examination system, adaptability of the students, etc, will have to be considered. I think there is no harm in waiting for things to improve. Many advocates said that the BCI did not seem to have applied enough thought to its recommendation. The BCI does not have the power to direct, it can only recommend, they said. Examinations at the end of each semester of an LLB course are competitive i.e. every student’s performance in an examination is judged against the performance of every other student in a group. An online examination as suggested by the Bar Council could invite sophisticated cheating by some students that the universities will be powerless to even detect, let alone punish the offending students.
The pandemic situation highlights some of the unfortunate reality of legal education. Many law schools have switched to online platform of teaching. The platform used for online teaching posed challenges because of lack of institutionalized platform to impart the lectures. Those who were technically savvy used this opportunity and became the masters of online teaching without analyzing the impact of the same. Soon we witnessed webinars mushrooming as well as faculty development programmes for faculties without making any efforts to analyse how the technology can be used to develop technical skills for students. The situation in the Bar was also not encouraging. The letter written by BCI Chairman to the Chief of Justice of India highlighted the harsh reality of lawyers in the bar who are the offshoot of legal education. He pointed out that all the members of the legal fraternity do not have access to the requisite technological resources and there is significant economic disparity in the country. This was reflected in the present mode of legal education for existence of the gap between theory and practice. The students from premier law schools prefer to become corporate legal professionals and their training by the institutes motivate to choose such profession, whereas for other legal institutions, the theoretical studies without development of any lawyering skills make them difficult to sustain in the practice. However, to resolve the issue of disparity, he was silent. It is true and a hard reality as well that in this profession it is always best for those who have a strong legal background. Though, he supported the online teaching in legal education at present he stated that without classroom teaching accompanied with other activities, legal education cannot be completed without clinical trials especially for the final year students. Thus, the other activities infact can be presumed to clinical legal education which is the backbone of effective legal education where students are trained through experiment based programmes like legal aid clinics, lok adalats etc. Hence, this sudden shift towards online classes, webinars, online internship programmes cannot be viewed as future platform of legal education in India and can be expected to integrate in the legal education reforms. No doubt, to meet the immediate challenge, the present mode adopted by educational Institutions imparting legal education through online mode was backed by the BCI circular, is the rider and the same cannot be considered as a rule. Legal education reforms remain in papers, hence, this is time to ponder the ways to implement the same at least with the need for all the legal students to equip with the computer lab activities as well, so that there will not be a situation to say our lawyers are not equipped with the technology. There is a need for regulatory authorities and concerned stakeholders to move forward for the integration of technology and restructure legal education with phenomenal change. The law graduates should develop competency to meet the new challenges in the emerging global market and train themselves to provide transnational legal service. As a result of online learning, there is a shift of emphasis from teacher to learner with the latter as customer is catching on in this digital age. The method of delivery should be collaborative, co-operative/team work type than competitive, passive and individualistic. Websites can lead learners to sources of information and virtual classrooms. Though, the Web as an information provider, provides lot of materials, a student as well as a teacher should be able to process the source of information and classify its relevancy which calls for the expertise in the area of research undertaken. However, it is quite evident that e-learning cannot replace the traditional methods of teaching in true sense.
THE WAY FORWARD
Today all the sectors are facing the setback in this situation of the pandemic but it is the education sector that has attuned itself with the possible methods, accepting the fact that this sector alone concerns the largest portion of the people in the world’s second largest populous country and it is appreciable that more than 60 percent of the education system has adapted to what is now termed as the new normal in the present scenario. 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. Uncertain times call for stronger measures and the education industry has been stepping up to take some. The pandemic has been working as a catalyst for the educational institutions to grow and opt for platforms and techniques, they haven’t used before. The times are changing, and the theories have always pointed out towards the survival of the fittest. Surviving these crises with a different approach and digitizing the sector are the two elements which will get the industry through the storm and wash away the blues of the pandemic. 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 sitting in the remote rural area of the state of Chhattisgarh would be able to hear Harish Salve sharing his experiences at International Court of Justice or a student from a village in Darbhanga who could do a course from Yale through Coursera and from Harvard University through edX. There has been a long experience of waiting long for legal luminaries from Delhi/Bombay to address the students in any function in the institutions of any category. 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 that many substantive changes have occurred in the legal education and these changes should also be embraced by the Legal Education Committee (LEC) of BCI. As Albert Einstein once said, “In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity”, so this is the right time for the LEC of BCI to introduce reforms recognizing 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 may be able to not only handle the situation in tough times and uphold the justice system serving the common man but also becoming the guardian of public interest & promoter of human rights.
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