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Tuesday August 09, 2022

Jeopardizing access to legal education

June 27, 2022

A recent alarming post on social media by an official of the Punjab Bar Council regarding inability of ‘private’ students preparing for external LLB examinations to apply for and acquire the licence to practise law after their degrees, despite it being a ‘recognized’ international programme in Pakistan, sent down alarm bells amongst all students currently enrolled in such programmes across Pakistan.

This, however, appears to be based on an incorrect reading of the rules of the Pakistan Bar Council – and on a general disdain towards external LLB degree programmes.

A ‘private’ external student would be someone who is duly registered as a student with a university outside Pakistan offering its degree programme via distance learning inside Pakistan after approval and recognition from the Pakistan Bar Council; however, such a student need not necessarily be registered with a local teaching center and is well within the rules of the university to prepare for their degree and its examinations howsoever they may choose, whether at home, individually, with private support or by enrolling themselves in any local teaching center whether or not recognized by the university abroad.

The University of London LLB degree programme is one such programme that is most popular, not just in Pakistan, but in over 190 different countries across the globe. Their objective essentially being to promote access to quality education without the traditional boundaries and limitations of enrollment in a brick-and-mortar building. Back then, this may have been revolutionary, but post-Covid and now vast accumulated experience of rolling out these programmes shows that flexible access to education through remote and digital or distance learning is very well a need.

It comes as part of a right to access education, with ‘access’ being a more fluid concept than the traditional understanding of attendance in a concrete building designated as a school or college. These archaic concepts towards learning need to be retired just as much as there is a need to retire those who desire to ‘gatekeep’ access to legal education in Pakistan, jeopardizing the future of hundreds of forthcoming graduates.

To begin with, the Legal Education Rules 2015 by the Pakistan Bar Council are not applicable to ‘private’ students and only address and regulate colleges and universities providing legal education in Pakistan and/or their students. The said rules are silent on the status of private students that, while may be duly registered with the approved university abroad, but may not be enrolled in any teaching institution/registered law school in Pakistan. If one is to believe that there is indeed an inability for such students to apply for a law licence, then it shows that there is an attempt to eliminate the possibility of studying the external programme independently which is not even a requirement of the approved external university itself.

The Bar, it seems, is attempting to be more loyal than the king himself by making admission in an approved brick-and-mortar college practically mandatory by threatening non-eligibility for a licence. This is a stretch in the interpretation of the rules, beyond their scope.

However, even for students who are enrolled in local colleges offering an external programme, Rule 40 of the 2015 rules states that the Pakistan Bar Council should recommend to the provincial bar councils “to refrain from issuing practicing license to their students after they obtain LLB. degree.” This appears to suggest that students enrolled in such colleges will not be able to apply for their licence to practise unless the students can show that their local teaching center complied with all rules of the Pakistan Bar Council. In this way, the rules penalize and jeopardize the future of these students and place the burden on the students to put pressure on their colleges to ensure compliance with the rules.

Just imagine: students may not always be in a position of knowing or being fully aware of the status of compliance with the Bar rules and even if they are, why should they be penalized for any lack of compliance on part of the institution they are enrolled in? This is not only onerous but also extremely unfair. It is like using students as a weapon against the institutions to seek compliance and thereby jeopardizing the future of potential graduates by withholding their licence even though they may have cleared all their recognized external examinations and other examinations such as the Law GAT and SEE Law by the Bar.

These rules were promulgated subsequent to the decision of the honourable Supreme Court on the issue of improving standards of legal education in Pakistan on a petition filed by the Pakistan Bar Council in 2007. This happened while it really shouldn’t even have been up to the courts to determine questions of policy related to legal education. All questions of policy should be addressed in more participatory and democratic spaces and must be adopted after a consultative process leading to consensus. The Pakistan Bar Council, however, chose to take a more assertive route via the courts by filing another petition in 2012 seeking enforcement of the 2007 judgment instead, which is regrettable. This was not an issue of enforcement of fundamental rights that Article 184 (3) was resorted to; in fact, this issue involved questions of policy and should have remained in that space.

Notwithstanding this, it is important to understand that neither the Supreme Court judgment nor the 2015 rules relate to or deal with the case of ‘private’ students – so hampering their eligibility to apply for the license to practice, is unjustified. They stand as a separate class of students and their ability to access legal education and sit for exams and apply for a licence should not be hindered or restricted, especially in a post-Covid world which has amplified the importance and need for digital access.

Most woman who may be unable to join an institution, for instance because of childbirth or care at home or other mobility issues, may find these options accessible and useful as a means to complete their education and there may be people who cannot afford to pay additional charges of the local teaching institution and find studying independently a suitable option. The same perhaps may be the case for those who are working and looking to study as well in their own time and space to continue their education; why should they be bound to brick and mortar? If they are able to clear all relevant examinations they should have the right to access the profession and obtain the license.

The writer is a diversity and inclusion advocate. She tweets @NidaUsmanCh

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