Room for improvement
By Ridwanul Hoque
The service the legal community offers in any nation is based on that nation’s legal education. Unfortunately, the Bangladesh Bar Council, the regulatory body for the legal profession, is largely indifferent about its duty to improve the standards of legal education, and neither the University Grants Commission nor the Education Ministry is exercising any special oversight over law schools. In Bangladesh, one needs a law degree to become an advocate or a judge. Law is taught at three different types of institutions of varying quality:
– Six public universities and more than 30 private universities offer law degrees after four years of study. Postgraduate degrees are offered only at universities.
– Some 80 law colleges teach two-year evening courses. The history of part-time law curricula goes back to the mid-19th century, with neither students nor teachers being involved full-time. The teachers are practising lawyers. These colleges are not adequately regulated and their performance tends to be poor.
– The Bar Council offers some legal training for new entrants to the profession, but it is not very effective.
Law curricula at universities and evening colleges diverge massively. The universities offer 28 modules on an average, whereas the colleges do not even teach half as many subjects. Unfortunately, the Bar Council has not defined indispensable “core law subjects”.
Nonetheless, the university law schools have been updating their curricula in recent years. New subjects include, for example, cyber and consumer laws. However, the content, quality and coverage of the syllabi remain debatable. Making matters worse, some subjects with great developmental relevance such as the mineral resources law are not tackled. Even human rights are hardly taught in their local contexts.
Generally speaking, law schools in Bangladesh do not put legal issues in the necessary social and multidisciplinary contexts. Not a single university offers a course in “law and society”. This situation is unsatisfying.
Thwarted instrument of change
The rule of law is an important dimension of socio-economic development. Law schools have to do more than merely award degrees and, at best, produce legal plumbers. It is generally accepted that the law must be an instrument of social change and serve constitutional aspirations of a just and rule-of-law-based society. So law schools matter in a wider context too.
Law-teaching in Bangladesh is fraught with the black-letter approach and frustratingly traditional in the sense of lacking a vision for development. Important issues, including social justice and basic civic freedoms, hardly figure in their proper perspective. To some extent, this scenario reflects job market demand. The law schools basically produce trainee lawyers who are supposed to join law firms and fight legal cases.
Competent jurists, however, are needed in other sectors of society too, including in the judiciary, academia, government agencies, private-sector companies and civil society organisations. In Bangladesh, unfortunately, law graduates are not taught in relevant matters.
In 2007, the Law Commission published its first and so far only report on legal education. It emphasised the need for “modern and socially relevant legal education”. Its conclusion stated: “Academically sound and vocationally skilful law graduates would make great human resource for various sectors of our national development.”
No doubt, legal education in Bangladesh should see law not only just as a professional vocation but just as much a subject of humanity. That blend is currently missing. Relevant non-law subjects for legal education include ethics, anthropology, sociology, economics, environment and technology. Our country needs jurists who understand such matters – but it does not train such jurists. Whereas western countries keep discussing what their law schools should and do impart, this question does not get much attention in Bangladesh.
Only one university in Bangladesh offers clinical legal education, in which students tackle real-world issues on behalf of disadvantaged people. In general, law students are not being trained in pro bono and legal outreach activities. Nor are they adequately imbibed, through academic work, in the law as a service to the poor people.
Moreover, far too little legal research in the sense of critically and deeply analysing statutes, case-laws and minority judicial opinions is being done. Legal research as a subject is not even compulsory at the leading public universities. There is not a single university centre of legal studies/research. At the same time, law students are not accepted as contributors to universities’ law journals.
In Bangladesh, economic liberalisation began in the late 1980s. Accordingly, a series of donors-led reforms were introduced. To strengthen the legal system, a permanent law commission and a judicial training institute were established. However, legal education did not receive any notable attention from the reformers.
A host of challenges
Legal education at the law colleges seems to be the poorest component of the system. They are hardly more than gateways to examinations. However, the colleges are not the only institutions that are struggling with a host of challenges. Public law schools, for instance, typically suffer from resource constraints. At Dhaka University Law School, classes at the undergraduate level have 120 students. This sheer size means that effective student-teacher interaction is hardly possible.
Private law schools and law colleges face other problems. Most notably, there are very few quality students. Due to the proliferation of private law schools, good teachers are also in short supply.
“There are isolated attempts in some university law faculties to make teaching more practice oriented”, M. Shah Alam acknowledged on behalf of the Law Commission in 2007. Overall, however, he found that teaching methods and exams were largely lecture-based. Critical thinking and thorough analysis of issues were not on the agenda.
Law students tend to be dismayed by the quality of teaching and the examination systems that only reward learning by rote. Law schools should motivate students to read widely, but in Bangladesh they encourage them to rely on made-easy guide books. It is rare for students to study original texts.
The recruitments at law faculties are sometimes tainted by political considerations, which obviously diminish educators’ creativity and commitment. Scholars do not write good law-books and research papers in adequate numbers. In general, law schools in Bangladesh lack a culture of critically studying and analysing case laws and statutes.
There are also some Bangladesh-specific challenges. It is sometimes considered a problem that English serves as the language of instruction. Indeed, the use of Bengali would make access easier for the great majority of Bangladeshis. On the other hand, our courts use English, and doing so makes sense, since the laws of Bangladesh are based on English common law, and so are those of many other nations. Given that there is very little legal research in Bangladesh, forsaking the wealth of English-language legal sources would be a disaster.
The need for reform
Although it is quite common for people in Bangladesh to express criticism of law schools, no government agency or professional body has ever stated any objectives for legal education, let alone pursued any concrete policy on the matter (Alam 2007). It is evident that legal education must improve. But who will do what remains unclear, and the blame-game goes on unabated. A general consensus has not yet emerged as to which reforms should be brought about first.
Broadly, some measure of uniformisation in the legal education and the modernisation of curricula are most desirable. It is time that the government intervened with a holistic approach. Forty years into the country’s independence, the ideals of the rule of law, social justice and equal access to justice have become blurred by the weight of corruption and mal-governance.
Reforms of legal education should be geared to making constitutional goals a reality. Until the government does its job of setting standards, however individual law schools institutionally and their educators personally must do their best to fulfil their responsibilities. After all, nobody is stopping them from conveying the kind of legal knowledge that serves to drive socio-economic progress.