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Opinion

January 30, 2018

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Reform and red herrings

Chief Justice Saqib Nisar is on an escalated reform mission. Among other things, he has vowed to transform the standard of legal education in the country within six weeks. To put things into perspective, that’s about as long as it takes to heal an average bone fracture.

One of the important items on the legal education reform agenda is tighter regulation of what are known as ‘affiliated law colleges’. It has come to light, albeit not for the first time, that many legal education institutions across the country that have supposedly been granted affiliate status either do not fulfil the criteria for affiliation or are providing substandard legal education or, typically, both. The chief justice believes that this breakdown in quality control of affiliated law colleges is responsible for producing the kind of lawyers who “sold paan during the day and practised law in the evening.” Accordingly, the chief justice has issued an order prohibiting new affiliations, and constituted a special committee to oversee “structural reforms” in legal education.

Such episodic and ad-hoc oversight interventions for regulating the provision of legal education are a quick and convenient fix; they can be neatly packaged to the public as an instance of successful reform, accomplished even before one’s broken bones have fully recovered. But from the viewpoint of enduring or structural change, they entirely miss the woods for the trees.

Let me put this criticism in a few digestible numbers with a focus on Lahore and the wider Punjab region. The Lahore District Bar is the largest district-level bar in all of South Asia. While it has an estimated registered population of 18,000 – a number that is continually growing – only somewhere between 6,000 and 7,000 of its members actively practise in the courts as litigators. This current population of lawyer-advocates has something striking in common. A very large majority of them (over 90 percent) received their qualifying degree in law (LLB) as well as their highest degree in law (where applicable) from one law university: the Punjab University Law College in Lahore (PULC).

This information is not readily accessible, even though it ought to be, given the serious crisis of legal education in this country. We have come to know this because of a very recent representative survey of 654 advocates in the Lahore District Bar. The survey, designed and executed by the Institute of Development and Economic Alternatives (IDEAS) in Lahore in November 2017, is the first of its kind in both the country and the entire region. It aims to generate data on the demographics, perceptions and actions of lawyer-advocates in the Lahore District in relation to their court practice and associational activities at all tiers of the court hierarchy.

Why does it matter that these advocates share an educational association? The answer ought to be fairly obvious to anyone concerned with legal education reform: if one wishes to influence the quality of litigators in the district courts and the high court in Lahore, any reform must start from the PULC. This lone institution, it seems, is by far the biggest supplier of litigators in Lahore, regardless of the fact that roughly 40 percent of these litigators come from outside of the city. Thus, the PULC is not only the legal education hub for potential lawyer-advocates in Lahore, it is also the leading bridge-creating institution between Lahore and the rest of Punjab for non-Lahore natives wishing to base their legal practice in Lahore.

It is hardly a coincidence that the PULC enjoys this dominant position in Lahore and its close vicinity. The PULC is the largest of the three public-sector law universities that are authorised to regulate the quality of legal education provision in the province through a formal process of affiliation (the other two being Bahauddin Zakariya University in Multan, and Islamia University in Bahawalpur). To these ‘nuclear’ institutions are linked a host of largely private affiliated law colleges.

Thus, in Lahore and its surroundings, it is the PULC – and not its affiliates – that forms the ‘deep structure’ of legal education. It is this very large cohort of lawyers hailing from the PULC that interacts daily with litigants, judges, police and other actors of the justice sector; that defines the broader legal culture; and that forms the backbone of organised civil society in Punjab. Hence, any meaningful structural legal education reform in our largest district-level bar must primarily take account of this population of lawyers. In other words, the reform must be embedded within the public-sector law universities that are presumably the benchmark-setters for affiliated law colleges.

It was a moment of truth when lawyers in the Lahore District were surveyed about what measures could be taken to improve the quality of courtroom interaction between lawyers and judges. One of their most persistent and unabashed responses was that “lawyers should be better trained for preparing and arguing their cases.” One is compelled to ask what it will take to acknowledge that our public-sector hubs of legal education – like the PULC – have miserably failed to impart basic lawyering skills like case preparation and argumentation.

Arguably, Lahore is not representative of the rest of Punjab. We do not have any objectively verifiable data for the educational background of lawyers in non-Lahore districts. Anecdotally, it seems that affiliated law colleges have a more perceptible impact on the population of litigators in certain districts outside Lahore.

But that does not diminish the problem of non-reform in ‘nuclear’ public-sector law universities. The issue of substandard provision of legal education in affiliated law colleges is an extension of this larger problem: if institutions like the PULC cannot fulfil the basic needs of legal education for their target market, it is even less likely that they have the capacity to oversee other law colleges.

Ultimately, the focus on affiliates is a red herring, like most other quick fixes that allow a select few their moment of glory. The real reform questions are: how do we reform our benchmark-setting law universities – and when?

The writer is a research fellow at the Institute of Development & Economic Alternatives (IDEAS), a think tank based in Lahore.

Email: [email protected]

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