Ignorance of law is not a valid excuse for wrongdoing. This widely accepted principle highlights the importance of imparting law education to the public, particularly in democratic societies where the rule of law is the main pillar that supports the system. Citizens’ awareness about their rights and responsibilities decides to a large extent the quality of a democracy. Knowledge about rights is a must to thwart bullies, official or otherwise. Awareness about one’s responsibilities is essential to be disciplined in daily life and to put the common good before one’s self-interest.
India, the world’s largest democracy, is placed somewhere in the middle on a list of 128 countries by the World Justice Project Rule of Law Index. The index represents the measure of how the rule of law is experienced and perceived in a country. There is little to be proud of in the Indian experience. This situation calls for a thorough overhaul of law education in the country.
The action plan required to achieve this goal should essentially have two components. One is to correct the serious shortcomings of the present system in which the study of law is part of the higher education scheme. The second, and more important from the social benefit angle, is taking law education to the common people. The key to educating the general public is, as the cliché goes, catching them young. This will need sincere measures to include legal awareness in the school curriculum.
In several developed countries children are familiarized in schools with basic laws, road rules and measures to make themselves secure. India can devise a similar system but the legal lessons should never come within the examination scheme. Teaching must be using videos, anecdotes, quiz competitions and the like with the participation of the entire class. It should be like teaching a child to kick a football, to hold a cricket bat, or to jump into a swimming pool.
The underlying purpose is to instill in the child the belief that laws are there to make life peaceful and secure, to protect the weak from the rich and mighty; that the agents of law are there to help and not to harm and they have to be confronted if they harm. In essence, it is to create a positive perception of law in the younger generation.
Lessons learnt in childhood are hardly forgotten. If the idea gets a collective push, a day will come when a child would advise her mother not to park the scooter in the middle of the road when she is dropped at school, ask her father not to jump the signal while riding pillion with him, dare to look an erring policeman in the eye and give him a piece of her mind, report a dowry offence with little hesitation, or stop child marriage with wholehearted support from her generation. That will be a shot in the arm for India.
The present system of law education, as mentioned earlier, is riddled with problems. There are two routes to enter the law stream. One is the three-year LLB course taken up after graduation and the other the relatively new five-year integrated course leading to a degree like BA LLB or BBA LLB. One cannot be blamed if one believes that the latter was designed for the market.
In this context the questions Ranjan Gogoi raised when he was the Chief Justice of India have relevance even now. He pointed out that the integrated courses had been started by the national law schools to attract the best talent to the legal profession. The course attracted talent, but it became too elitist with prohibitively high fee structures. Did those who passed out enrich the profession? It would take several years for a young lawyer to achieve financial independence. Hence a good proportion of them joined the corporate world as legal officers.
There was also the mushrooming of private, self-financing institutions, with poor quality teachers and inadequate facilities, offering integrated law degrees. This only helped to take the sheen off such courses.
The three-year LLB course continued, though with steadily decreasing importance, as the poor man’s choice. Here, again, many aspiring students suffered a setback with certain institutions setting age limits for admission. This despite the unwritten law that everybody should know law.
Right now, hardly any graduate passing out of the law colleges has a clear knowledge of legal processes and procedures. They have to learn these the hard way from senior professionals. This being the case, it is only proper that a mechanism on the lines of the Institute of Chartered Accountants of India is made available to those who are seriously interested in becoming practising lawyers. They will be able to work under professionals and attend classes given by professionals. Of course, there will be the risk of failure like in the CA examination. A serious student must be ready to take it.
In India, people respect and trust the judiciary more than any other public institution and the courts are generally seen as the most reliable dispensers of justice. Judges are chosen from among the lawyers, and it is imperative that the law colleges produce quality graduates.
Incidentally, there is an important issue that should not be ignored in a discussion on law education. There is a complaint among the general public that Indian laws are generally a mass of statements wrapped in legalese. One cannot be surprised if somebody believes that this situation is allowed to remain so in order to keep the legal profession as the exclusive preserve of a small section of the population. It is for the Law Commissions and the lawmakers to set the matter right. At any rate, one of the reasons for the piling up of cases, especially civil cases, in Indian courts is that the laws are not always crystal clear.
For a civilized society, law education is as important as education in health and hygiene. Imparting knowledge in basic laws to the public is a major responsibility of the state. It is high time the governments took the initiative and persuaded private organisations to join in.
(Jayakrishnan K is an advocate.)