Monday, May 25, 2009

Specialised Legal Education: Bar Council Compliance?

As some of you may be aware, a generous bequest by US billionaire Vinod Gupta helped kickstart the Rajiv Gandhi School of Intellectual Property law (RGSOIPL), India's first specialised law school, focusing on intellectual property law (IP). This school, which is based out of IIT-Kharagpur has been operational since 2006 and has strong ties to the George Washington University law school, one of the top IP law schools from the US.

Although this law school does not only teach IP, but a string of other legal courses normally taught at the other law schools, it restricts admissions to candidates with a first degree in science. In pertinent part, the IIT-K website notes:

"The School presently has one programme: Six-Semester, Three-Year Full-Time residential LL.B. Programme leading to the Degree of Bachelor of Law with specialization in Intellectual Property Rights, at par with the LL.B. Degree requirements of the Bar Council of India."

Just as this novel experiment in specialised legal education produced its first set of law graduates this year, it has been hit with a legal challenge. Express Buzz reports:

"The Supreme Court has issued notices to the Bar Council of India, Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur and to the Secretary, Ministry of Human Resource Development on a writ petition questioning the propriety and correctness of the Bar Council of India in giving permission to IIT, Kharagpur to start a course in LLB in Intellectual Property Rights.

A Bench comprising Chief Justice K G Balakrishnan, Justice P Sathasivam and Justice Deepak Verma directed issuance of notice after briefly hearing advocate Sanjay Parekh.

The petition filed by M Chandrasekhar, an advocate of the apex court, pointed out that the eligibility for joining an LLB course is a graduation in any discipline, that is BA, B. Com, BSc etc.
The petitioner pointed out that LLB is an entry-level professional course in law wherein a candidate is taught basic principles of law in a number of subjects. If any candidate desires to specialise, he can opt for LLM course in a subject of his choice like Constitutional Law and Contracts.

But, for the first time, the general character of the LLB course is sought to be changed by IIT Kharagpur by starting a specialised course in Intellectual Property Rights and that too restricting admission only to BE, B Tech, MBBS, M Pharma, MSc, MBA with Science/Engineering background, the petitioner averred."

Towards Specialised Law Schools?

Given the sheer dearth of skilled patent lawyers in this country, I am very partial to the idea of a specialised IP law school. Particularly since the premier legal institutes in the form of the National law schools do not focus on science at all, a discipline that is absolutely essential for churning out decent patent lawyers. The National Law University (NLU), Jodhpur does offer a B.Sc. LLB, but I am not entirely sure if the level of the science taught as part of the BSc is adequate. The head of the IP Division of a big Indian pharma company once confided to me that these candidates were of no use to them, as the science taught was fairly elementary.

NUJS offers a very curious BA/BSC LLB degree, but there is no science taught at all. Dr Madhav Menon, the founding director of this law school may have intended for this law school to provide a science option as well, but this never really kicked off. The nomenclature seems more of a historic relic now.

Anyway, back to the dispute at hand and legal challenge mounted against the grant of approval to RGSOIPL's 3 year LLB course. I don't necessarily see a problem with a specialised "IP" focus in an entry level LLB course, provided other foundational legal courses such as contracts, torts, criminal law, constitutional law etc are also taught. I'll try and bring you a more detailed note on the specific legal issues once I lay my hands on the petition.

In the meantime, let me try and highlight some of the broader issues raised by this recent controversy:

i) To what extent do law schools comply with the Bar Council of India (BCI) norms?

ii) Should the BCI (in its current form) be permitted to regulate legal education at all? Does it have the institutional competence to do so?

Compliance With Bar Council Rules?

To answer the first question, a couple of months back, I checked the Bar Council of India (BCI) requirements applicable to the five year integrated law degrees (BA LLB, BSc LLB etc) and found that none of the law schools were likely to comply with the fairly onerous requirements spelt out by the BCI.

In particular, given that these schools accord rather step motherly treatment to the BA component (having a mere 5-6 courses of history, economics and political science), they are likely to fall foul of the BCI mandate that the BA or BSc syllabus "has to be comparable to the syllabus prescribed by leading Universities in India in three year bachelor degree program in BA, B.Sc, B.Com, BBA etc taking into account the standard prescribed by the UGC/AICTE and any other respective authority for any stream of education".

The BCI norms appear to require a good 14-20 courses to cover the "BA" component--which is way beyond the current 5-6 course offerings in this regard by the law schools.

Institutional Competence of the BCI?

As for the second question, most academics abhor the thought of having legal education in India solely dictated by the BCI, most of whose decision makers are practitioners with no real insights into legal education policy. And this sentiment has been echoed by the National Knowledge Commission as well, which recommended that course curriculum etc be designed by a new standing committee on legal education under a proposed Independent Regulatory Authority for Higher Education.

Arun's paper titled "The Waning of a Magnificent Obsession: An Abridged Story of the History of Legal Educational Reform in India" (which I referred to in an earlier post) has some fascinating insights into this issue. He discusses the Gajendragadkar Committee Report of 1964 in this regard and notes:

"The Committee had noted the distinction made under the Advocates Act, 1961 according to which, theoretical or scientific legal education would be in charge of the Faculties of Law working under the different Universities in India and the practical or technical legal education would be in charge of the State Bar Councils.

To remedy the situation, the Committee had recommended that the Bar Councils and the Universities should act in concert and agree upon evolving suitable criteria for both theoretical and practical forms of education. However, the Committee felt that a more substantive and long term solution to the problem would be the creation of a statutory body called the Council of Legal Education which could be given supervisory control over all aspects – theoretical, practical and incidental – of legal education in the country. The Gajendragadkar Committee was of the opinion that the Council should be constituted on a high-power basis and be composed of judges, law teachers, members of the Bar, and representatives of industry or other fields which would have an interest in law. The Committee did not elaborate on the details of the constitution of the Council or on its powers, but felt that the constitution of such a Council by Parliament would facilitate the progress of legal education along healthy lines.

Similar suggestions have, over the years, been made by several persons who have had some experience with policy making in the field of legal education, and recent fiascos like the V.Sudeer case only serve to heighten the urgency of the requirement of such a unified authority."
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