Updated on Oct 24, 2017 - 10:49 a.m. IST by Prof. (Dr.) N R Madhava Menon

The doyen of legal education, Prof. (Dr.) N R Madhava Menon, who built the National Law School system narrates the birth of NLUs that have become the benchmark for professional studies in the field. Careers360 brings you the story of birth of NLUs and the increasing demand of legal education in our country.


The 14th Report of the Law Commission (1954) found an alarming state of affairs in the system of legal education in the country. The Advocates Act (1961) envisaged comprehensive reforms to be accomplished by the newly elected Bar Councils in consultation with universities teaching law. While the number of law colleges increased in a very short time thereafter, the quality of legal education imparted in these colleges declined from the professional perspective. The dropping of the mandatory apprenticeship and entry examination, initially proposed by the Advocates Act, led to a sharp decline in the quality of legal services rendered in court and outside. The plan of “education” with colleges and “training” with the bar failed to deliver.


The idea of a National Law University

It was in this context, the idea of a National Law School to set the standards right and to develop an alternative model of delivery of education and training was first mooted in academic circles in the early 1970s. Ram Jethmalani, the then Chairman of the Bar Council of India, took the initiative of setting up a Trust specifically to advise the Council on legal education reforms generally and to promote the prospects of National Law School as a pace setter in that direction. In 1978, I was invited to be the first Secretary of the Bar Council of India Trust and in the next three years, the idea of setting up a Law University, the first of its kind in the country, got into shape. It was during this period the idea of the five-year Integrated LL.B. programme was also conceived and several text books were produced by the BCI Trust for teaching social sciences and humanities in law studies. I re-joined Delhi University in 1982 when the BCI adopted the Five-year LL.B. Curriculum and declared its intention to set up a model law school to teach it at Bangalore. As fate would have it, in 1986, the Bar Council of India entrusted me the task of implementing the new scheme of professional legal education under challenging circumstances in Bangalore. The rest is history now known to everybody concerned with legal education.


Problems and challenges

The problems were many and varied. Land, money, infrastructure and more importantly teachers who were prepared to make sacrifices and take risks to try out successfully a new experiment fiercely opposed by peers and lobbies within the profession and outside. It took me over six months to organise temporary accommodation, assemble a team of dozen teachers who will come on meagre salaries and make them dream with me on institution-building which the BCI characterised as the “Harvard of the East”! How do we attract bright students to join the new course at a time when law studies was not popular in the county? How can we make the curriculum interesting and professional, developing a balance between knowledge and skills? In absence of proper study materials, how can we organise integrated instruction on social services appropriately with relevant law courses? Above all, how do we generate the funds to get the scheme going, given the fact that BCI could give only Rs. 50 lakhs for the project and the Karnataka Government an equal sum and that too in instalments over a five-year period?


Well, to cut a long story short, the challenges gave strength to pursue the goal with determination and perseverance. Teachers fanned out to visit schools in the neighbourhood to explain the new course to the students seeking professional studies. We had no money even to give an advertisement in the media and only through personal contacts with students and their parents we could get the first batch of fifty students who, as luck would have it, made the effort an outstanding success. Several State governments were approached to make an initial contribution of money to a national initiative. West Bengal Government under Jyoti Basu was the first State which gave a grant of Rs.10 lakhs for setting up a Law University in another State! That gesture resulted in my going to Kolkata to set up a similar institution, West Bengal National University of Juridical Sciences, when the then chief minister personally asked me to do so.


Spread of National Law Schools in other States

With graduates of successive batches getting instant recognition in the profession, admission to NLS Bangalore became highly competitive and pressure mounted on State Governments to provide similar facilities. The Conferences of Chief Justices and Law Ministers unanimously passed resolutions to replicate the model in as many States as possible. A Parliamentary Committee studied the Bangalore experiment and endorsed it for adoption at the national level. The private corporate sector seeking talents to service the needs of the emerging legal market sought to grab the opportunity and offered competitive pay packages to all students passing out of the National Law School. Even the leading law schools aboard provided inducements to get a share of the law graduates from the new Indian law school! Late 1990s turned out to be the golden era for the sudden spread of National Law Universities first in Andhra Pradesh (NALSAR), then in West Bengal (NUJS) followed by Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh. The late entry to the NLU club is Maharashtra which compensated the delay by establishing three independent National Law Universities in three different cities (Mumbai, Nagpur and Aurangabad) in the State.


Impact of National Law School movement

The impact of the NLUs goes beyond conventional legal practice around courts and tribunals. In fact, in the initial period, the entire product was absorbed by the private corporate law firms denying talents to the litigating bar. Even the judicial services did not attract enough of the new set of law graduates. Gradually, a sizeable section migrated to litigative practice in the appellate courts. Even then, the trial courts which needed them most, did not get enough numbers of the new set of lawyers. In fact, this development necessitates a fresh look at the scheme of legal education started in Bangalore in late 1980s. One of the major objects of the National Law School experiment at that time was to strengthen the trial courts with competent judges at the grass roots and to act as a pace setter in legal education reforms. The latter object was completely fulfilled; it is now for legal educators to review the scheme to serve the needs of the litigating public particularly in the rural and tribal areas instead of blindly replicating the Bangalore model of 1980s.


Beyond the litigating and corporate professions, the National Law School movement made a huge difference in the quality and management of higher education generally. The University Grants Commission, which initially refused to finance Law Universities came round to fund them liberally. The idea of linking up professional education with industry got a big push in the legal sector. The experiment of clinical legal education became vastly popular and experiential learning through placements and projects became an integral part of professional education. NLUs expanded their curriculum with non-professional programmes directed to impart legal training to decision-makers in the government and private sectors. With the emergence of NLUs many unproductive teaching shops exploiting students got closed and others were constrained to constantly improve their programmes on the lines of what was happening in the National Law Schools.


NLUs revealed the fact that for quality education there is no dearth of funds and society is willing to support it. NLUs demonstrated how a new management model free of bureaucracies and corruption can take University administration to global standards. It has also established a totally satisfactory internal assessment system of student performance and challenged the conventional scheme of examination prevalent in most Universities. Above all, NLUs gave legal education the respect it deserves and made it the first choice of bright students passing out of the higher secondary schools.


Is the tuition fee justfiable?

I cannot justify the tuition fees being collected by some of the private universities operating the NLU scheme of legal education. It is open to the UGC, State Governments, the Courts and other regulators of higher education to check profiteering in higher education.


If I may recall my own experience at National Law School, Bangalore, on funding of legal studies, it may explain the justification in contest. When the NLU, Bangalore was started, the tuition fee annually was Rs.2500 which was ten times more from what the universities and colleges collected for LL.B. programmes. This was justified on the ground that we had no other source of funding either from UGC or Government and the quality aimed at demanded certain additional facilities not provided in conventional law colleges. Very soon we realised that we cannot continue the programme if we do not increase the tuition fee substantially. Teachers and staff were prepared to work on a consolidated salary on contract far below the standards of the prevailing rates, because it was a bold academic experiment unprecedented in legal studies. We decided to take the audited statements of income and expenditure for the previous three years to every student and their parents and sought their advice. We were pleasantly surprised that without exception, every one of them volunteered to increase the fee payable from Rs.2500 to Rs.25000 from the third year onwards. Of course, in later year the fee had to be further increased to justify the cost of quality education.


In this connection, I must also point out that with the hike in tuition fee, the NLUs decided to offer partial or full wavier to those who could not afford to pay the increased amount. This is part of corporate social responsibility of these organisations.


Today, with increasing demand for quality legal education, the market forces determine what is the justifiable fee. It is the Government’s duty to curb tendencies of profiteering through oversight mechanisms which exist in some of the States. However, I do not think that any of the National Law Universities are overcharging students, though some of them, I understand, are not giving students their due in quality and standards. Such NLUs must be made accountable.


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