The Need for Continuing Legal Education in India
The day the Government of India announced the lockdown due to COVID-19, a wave of uncertainty gripped the legal community. There was an immediate need to reshape the whole legal community to match the requirements of the day, which meant rethinking ways and relying on means to adapt to the present circumstances that the community was facing at large.
This rethinking did not take much time, as within a few days of the lockdown, various associations/law firms/advocates and practitioners started conducting and circulating links to “webinars” being hosted on various legal topics. During the initial days, joining a webinar was in itself a fascinating experience, as it introduced us to a method by which we had never accessed and consumed knowledge before. What was absolutely refreshing was to see the spectrum of speakers participating in these webinars, who varied from the judges of the Supreme Court of India and various High Courts to various Senior Advocates, to advocates practicing in different disciplines of law. Personally for me, I was amazed that the opportunity to hear such a galaxy of speakers share their thoughts was just a click away!
While attending one of these webinars, it dawned upon me that in our present legal education system, a large number of law graduates do not venture towards practicing law in courts but instead opt for a ‘corporate’ practice. After joining the profession, however, the kind of “legal education” any advocate or lawyer generally chooses is largely influenced by his/her cases and is mostly confined within the contours of the filed of their practice.
These webinars, on the contrary, transcended those contours and allowed the participants to tap into a diverse wealth of knowledge available to them. The sheer number of participants joining each webinar sums up the sentiment of the legal community and the reason for my writing this article: the need for “continuing legal education” in India.
The concept of continuing legal education (CLE) for the legal profession is not novel. In fact, in countries like the United States of America, the American Bar Association has promulgated model CLE rules for individual jurisdictions to adopt. In the US, attorneys must earn a minimum number of CLE credits (measured in hours) over a set period of years. Earning the credits entails studying or teaching specific topics or courses in important and upcoming legal fields for a certain number of hours throughout the year. Publishing a certain number of legal articles, doing some pro bono work, or even judging moot courts also earn credits.
There are similar requirements in the UK, Canada, Germany, France, Italy and Australia. An aspect worth highlighting is that in all these jurisdictions, credits are to be earned by every advocate/lawyer, irrespective of whether they are a junior or a senior member at the Bar.
Coming to India, the concept of CLE is not new. Several professional bodies like the Institute of Chartered Accountants of India have been enforcing continued education in their disciplines. However, there have not been many concentrated efforts to introduce it in the legal system.
In the earlier days, a system of ‘apprenticeship’ existed under Section 24(1)(d) of the Advocates Act, 1961 wherein (junior) advocates used to be trained and taught by Senior Advocates. The apprenticeship system not only fostered personal relations amongst the senior and junior members of the Bar, but also required the junior members to commit themselves to continuing legal education after joining the profession. However, Section 24(1)(d) was omitted in the year 1973, which unfortunately led to discontinuation of the practice.
The Supreme Court in the case of State of Maharashtra v. Manubhai Vashi observed the need for continuing and well-organized legal education as absolutely essential in light of ever-growing challenges of the profession.
Thereafter, in order to revive the declining legal education post the 1973 amendment, the Bar Council of India (BCI) framed the Bar Council of India (Training) Rules, 1995 to bring back the apprenticeship system. Despite having recognized the importance of continuing legal education in Manubhai Vashi’s case, the 1995 Rules framed by the BCI were, however, struck down by the Supreme Court in the case of V Sudheer v. Bar Council of India. TheCourt struck down the 1995 Rules on the ground that once Section 24(1)(d) stood omitted in the year 1973, no rules in furtherance of section 24(1)(d) could be framed in the absence of that provision from the statute books.
Hence, systems such as the apprenticeship system were left to be re-introduced by way of statutory amendments. However, while striking the 1995 Rules down, the Supreme Court reiterated the falling standards of the legal profession and the crying need for improving the standards of legal education.
Thereafter, the BCI, in the case of Bar Council of India vv. Bonnie FOI Law College and Ors, filed a Final Report prepared by a 3-member committee on Reform of Legal Education before the Supreme Court. The report recognized the incorporation of a Directorate of Legal Education in terms of Rule 34 of Chapter IV of the Bar Council of India Rules of Legal Education 2008 for “organizing, running, conducting, holding, and administering (a) Continuing Legal Education...”
Despite revisiting the importance of CLE time and again, there have only been fragmented efforts by various law schools, State Bar Councils and even the Ministry of Law and Justice in association with the High Courts to introduce programs, schemes and training sessions for lawyers in the direction of continued legal education. An empirical study done in India had identified the importance of CLE and suggested methods such as attending seminars and conferences, writing research papers/articles, giving pro bono legal services, teaching, mentoring etc. as methods of CLE.
The Report, however, identified problems such as time constraints, lack of incentive to participate in CLE programs, lack of quality instructors, lack of reach of CLE schemes to taluka level and diversity of language as a means of instruction as major roadblocks in implementing CLE schemes in the Indian context.
Despite these roadblocks, the Report flagged the importance of CLE in India and requested for implementation of the mandatory CLE system for all practitioners. The Report recognized that “the legal domain is an ever-expanding body of knowledge. It is the lifelong learning process which makes a person adept to serve the demands of the profession”.
It is a fact that the need for continuing education for the legal profession in India is urgent and important. As has been seen in the preceding months, the unprecedented participation of members of the Bar and the Bench in various webinars not only reflects the need for CLE, but also proves that technology can be used as a medium for CLE activities. The previous studies done for finding ways to implement CLE schemes were carried out at a time when both technology and access to technology were scarce. Therefore, the implementation of the CLE schemes was perceived to be physically difficult and virtually impossible.
However, technology today has enveloped our everyday lives to such a degree that it is nothing short of being an extension of us all. Implementing CLE programs/schemes is perhaps much more easier and simultaneously accessible to a larger audience if done through the use of technology. We have the examples of the recent webinars before us that were (and still are being) successfully conducted by using technology.
Such webinars should be encouraged and can be continued in the form of mandatory CLE activities in the future. Though I am not going into the question of whether CLE requirements ought to be made applicable to judges, yet the informal manner in which various judges came forward to talk on legal issues is highly appreciated and should be continued sans CLE requirements.
To conclude, I would like to say that it is time for India to empower itself by adopting new ways of improving its legal education. As Nicholas Butler said, “an expert is one who knows more and more about less and less...”. However, to me, lawyers cannot be such experts. Today’s lawyers are required to know more and more about more and more, and CLE will help in achieving that goal.
The author is an Advocate practicing at the Delhi High Court. Views are personal.