The demand for legal education is exponentially increasing. More and more students are opting for Law in higher studies in India. Yet, it is an expensive degree to pursue. In addition to blood, sweat and tears, it demands money for fees, study material, digital gadgets, personal expenses, etc.
Recently, Hon’ble Justice DY Chandrachud, while addressing a virtual event, said, “Discrimination begins even before one enters Law School.” It is undeniable that legal education is fraught with its harsh web of inequalities. If one can cater to resources, the path to achieving higher education becomes affordable and easier. However, in reality, investment is often costly, widening the gap.
Coming from a middle-class family, desiring a quality professional course requires thinking twice about securing funds as higher education is not guaranteed as a public good. Cost barriers make it unfeasible for students from lower strata or socio-economic backgrounds to afford the same.
It is undeniable that one’s position on the ladder of privileges often ensures the opportunities available to them, including educational attainments.
To crack competitive exams coaching classes give direction to the preparation of aspirants. Nowadays, the rise in commercial coaching centres indicates the rise in demand for the same. To get into top ranking Law Schools, guidance and score are crucial. As per the IDIA survey, 85% of students accessed revealed to have opted for expensive coaching to crack CLAT. Although the survey took place in 2018-19, this number can be assumed to have increased.
These coaching centres majorly flourish in urban cities and demand fees up to ₹1 lakh. Only those who can afford it have the privilege to appear for exams as well. Also, the fee varies depending upon the popularity and result in the market. It is obvious that not every aspirant can afford the same.
Entrance exams also demand entrance fees that are often not affordable by the economically weaker section. For example, the CLAT fee is ₹4,000 and AILET is ₹3,000, which often adds to the burden of financially challenged families when aspirants take multiple entrance exams.
The most prominent hurdle is the language barrier. As Justice Chandrachud stated, “Most of the top law schools, which offer the five-year integrated law course, conduct admissions through a competitive test which is only in English.” The IDIA Diversity Survey of NLU students revealed that more than half of the students hailed from financially well off English speaking backgrounds. In contrast, the representation of students from rural and vernacular mediums was 3.4%.
The criterion for knowledge of English segregates a mass majority from appearing for the exams. Does this not make it a game of privileges? Mostly those with access to education in English Medium have the chance to appear in entrance and opt for Law schools. On the other hand, opportunities for people speaking regional languages get diminished often at the disadvantage of not being well versed in English.
The language barrier further extends to education in Law schools and job opportunities.
National Level Entrance tests being conducted in English denies accessibility to those versed in regional languages. How can knowledge be measured in a single language? One must question the potential divide it can create. Not having entrances in regional languages is a denial of opportunity at the first stage itself.
Even when one gets into school, classes and often activities unique to Law Schools such as mooting, client counselling, etc., are majorly conducted in the English Language. It is a challenging transformation for students coming from suburban cities, educated in vernacular mediums. Lack of English skills affects performance, including translation and drafting activities.
The demand further increases while applying for internships and employment. Almost in every sphere, this barrier sometimes supersedes the capability. For example, to litigate in the Supreme Court of India and even in High Courts, English speaking is mandatory. Firms also demand the same from graduates.
Understanding Law in the local language can help in better comprehension and grasp of the subject, thereby enhancing the student’s experience. In a country with several regional languages, the bilingual teaching of Law is necessary towards its inclusivity and better reach.
After the entrance, the fees create a barrier in selecting the Law School, as NLUs demand fees in Lakhs and the central university law degrees are not much in comparison to five-year courses. There are more than 1,500 Law colleges, but only two ranked under 200 world rankings.
Bar Council of India is engaged in capping the increasing number of Private Law colleges selling law degrees as the quality of professional courses deteriorates when degrees are often sold for money.
Most NLUs increase their fee every year and have surpassed IITs. This cost barrier impedes students from applying to these ranking universities and compromises their choice of college. Often then not, affordability creates a sense of elitism as one would have to think of bearing the cost of internships and competitions as well.
It further affects diversity, excluding students from rural or tribal communities, as these barriers determine the college one opts for, often regional and local.
The Law School defines other opportunities one may receive, education, internships, mooting and other avenues. Justice Chandrachud said that after graduation another set of discrimination sets forth. As NLUs are infamous for class and caste discrimination, the elitist culture persists even now.
In the vast English dominated legal field, students often face “fitting in” problems. Further, the name of the law school becomes crucial at the job stage. Many 1-tier law firms only select NLU graduates. Even if other graduates reach that stage, there might be a difference in salary structure.
Career opportunities shrink as it has become an elitist culture for corporates to hire English speaking urban NLU graduates. The rest of the graduates struggle to make a living. Not to forget, the pressure to recover the cost/loans often compels graduates to look for paying jobs instead of pursuing their interests further.
Justice Chandrachud’s address also touched upon the rising tilt towards a corporate culture with increasing corporatisation in India. Most Law Colleges focus mainly on litigation and corporate careers. This notion needs to be broken as the very purpose of National Law Universities was to create legal education as a part of the transformation and social engineering.
It’s an all-pervasive field and avenues for early development of interest or training in research, public policy, etc., must also be a part of it.
There is only a handful of information available around the subject of discrimination and inequalities faced by students in the legal field. Ironically, what we learn through education is quite contrary in reality. It is essential that as Justice Chandrachud questioned the need for fairness and inclusivity in legal education in India, we must demand a holistic approach for the maximum benefit of all.
I, being a Law student, is privileged enough to voice that we are taught the Constitution, and yet, I see the reality to be far from what we learn.