COVID-19 outbreak has forced the educational institutions to wrap-up the classes. The Higher Education Commission of Pakistan has directed chartered universities to move online. This is an appreciable step considering the hypersonic spread of the disease and the advancement of educational technology. However, it may be appreciated that Pakistan is not a tech-savvy country. Our institutions lack infrastructure and technical and financial resources. Notwithstanding these limitations, however, law schools may experiment hybrid online legal education in Pakistan.
In the absence of a clear national legal education policy, legal education in Pakistan has almost come to a standstill. In the past, legal education was largely ignored by our policymakers and regulators allowing an unhealthy growth of law schools and the legal profession. Finally, in 2018, the SC undertook to reform the legal profession and passed certain directions for the reformation of legal education. They include a ban on three years LL.B and the conduct of evening classes; the closure and disaffiliation of unauthorised law colleges; the hiring of experienced faculty; and the conduct of Law Admission Test (LAT) and Law Graduate Assessment Test (LAW-GAT); and the establishment of the Directorate of Legal Education in the Pakistan Bar Council (PBC) to improve the standard and quality of the legal education.
Our policymakers need to review the existing framework of legal education with the consultation of all stakeholders
Despite the SC directions, the focus of legal education regulators remained on the number of classrooms, number of books in a library, number of faculty at a law school, and number of admissions of law students. Amidst the focus on quantity, the quality of legal education ignored. A one-size-fits-all policy was applied to all law schools notwithstanding their resources and potential. Resultantly, it damaged those law schools who believe in the quality of legal education. Running a quality law school within the prescribed criterion of numbers has become a challenge (read impossible). As a result, our legal education system remains flat. The COVID crisis, however, presents with an opportunity for the policymakers to revise legal education policy.
The crisis has added to the difficulties of our law schools. Due to the closure of on-campus education, the law schools are struggling for the cash flow to maintain their capacity. The faculty and students are desperately looking for online resources, alongside the issues of internet access and stability. In the circumstances, the government must support law schools to improve their internet infrastructure and access to online databases. A free or subsidised internet package should be provided to students. The government must also provide free laptops to students, who cannot afford to buy expensive gadgets. In the meanwhile, law schools should survey how institutions in other countries are adjusting with the crisis. It would help to design and deliver legal education more effectively.
Law schools must reframe institutional policy and outlook. They need to build on the existing capacity and experiment innovation in legal education, which already has become a reality in other countries. For example, the University of Law in the UK and the California School of Law in the US are offering online LL.B. Top-ranking institutions like Stanford, Yale, and Harvard provide various online courses. The organization like edX are offering online law courses. Law schools are fast moving towards online programs as it brings numerous advantages such as reduced costs, flexibility, and customisation of learning modules. Therefore, our law schools should harness this opportunity. Legal education with the integration of technology is not only a necessity. It could also be offered as a selling point.
As a transitory measure, law teachers should make available recorded lectures enabling the students to learn at their pace and convenience. The subject of law has a rich philosophical content (jurisprudence) that may be taught more effectively in small-group face-to-face or video tutorials through Hi-Tec channels like Zoom. The decisions of the superior courts and the content of statutes are already available online that can be used as reading materials.
For long-term reforms in legal education, an application may be filed before the SC seeking reconsideration of the issues about the number of faculty, students, and admissions. Now a law professor can teach hundreds of students through online platforms. Educational resources i.e. law library can be provided through subscription. The relevant laws such as the HEC Ordinance, 2002, the Legal Practitioners and Bar Councils Act, 1973 and the Pakistan Bar Council Legal Education Rules, 2015, maybe amended in line with the requirements of the present. A law made in the past may not cater to the requirements of legal education of the future—that begins in 2020.
Briefly, our policymakers need to review the existing framework of legal education with the consultation of all stakeholders including law students. A thorough discussion on issues such as the kinds of legal skills that can be effectively taught online; capacity requirements for developing and delivering online courses, optimal class size, access, and administration for online delivery should take place to design and deliver hybrid courses. Finally, for effective online legal education, HEC and the government must provide technical and financial support to law schools.
The writer is an advocate in the Supreme Court of Pakistan