The Madras High Court sent a wave of anxiety through the legal education sector last week when it passed an order directing the Bar Council of India to abolish the three-year law degree course at the earliest. The direction was passed while hearing a petition filed by SM Anantha Kumar who sought the court’s intervention to halt the trend of criminals entering the legal profession.

The three-year law degree course represents the traditional format of legal education where students take up a law course after completing another bachelor’s degree, such as BA, BCom or BSc. Several generations of lawyers, including most of the designated Senior Advocates practicing today, have come to the bar through this system. The three-year course is offered at all the traditional law colleges such as the Government Law College, Mumbai, and Delhi University’s Campus Law Centre. Students embarking on such a course end up taking a total of six years to become a full-fledged advocate – three years of study for a bachelor’s degree, followed by three years for the study of law.

The five-year law course was introduced in the late 1980s, in recognition of some students’ desire to pursue law as a career right after the twelfth grade. As against the traditional approach, this course allowed students to become advocates after five years, saving them a year.

The National Law School of India University, Bangalore, offered the five-year course as it came into existence in 1988 as India’s first National Law University. At present, the five-year course is offered by the sixteen National Law Universities as well as some other traditional and private varsities.

The NLUs, which are residential universities and have rigorous academic programmes, are now seen as premier institutions comparable to the Indian Institutes of Technology and Indian Institutes of Management, while most of the other colleges are seen to be less exacting. Five years ago, this view was given further credence as former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh famously referred to the NLUs as “islands of excellence” in a “sea of institutionalised mediocrity”.

Addressing the wrong issue

There is some foundation for the belief. Most traditional colleges offering the three-year course have very few hours of class every day and even these don’t always require strict attendance. As a result, these colleges tend to attract those who are pursuing law just to gain another degree or those who want to be lawyers due to some vested interest. Criminals actively seek to join the legal profession, as it is believed that the police are wary of taking action against lawyers in general and especially in states like Tamil Nadu, where advocates’ associations actively take to the streets and protest police action against their members.

In the Madras High Court order, Justice N Kirubakaran noted that “Letter Pad Colleges” – that is, law colleges that exist only on paper and don’t have actual infrastructure or human resources to conduct classes – openly sell law degrees to willing buyers, including criminals. He said the Bar Council of India created this situation by granting recognition to such colleges and letting them mushroom around the country. In July, the Bar Council of India chairperson had himself admitted in a speech that 30% of all lawyers in India hold a fake or fraudulent degree.

The High Court order directed the termination of the three-year course, noting that criminals cannot use the five-year course to gain entry into the profession because of the age limit. The problem is, the age limit for the Common Law Admission Test (the entrance test for five-year law courses at NLUs) has been struck down.

The abolition of the three-year course, it is therefore clear, will not solve the problem of criminals becoming lawyers. With no age bar, there is nothing stopping criminals, old or young, from gaining entry into the profession through the five-year course. The bigger problem is the existence of substandard colleges that sell or grant degrees without their students ever having attended classes: it is their existence that is allowing criminals to earn the lawyer tag quickly.

In contrast to these institutes, at some premier colleges such as the Government Law College, Mumbai, and the ILS Law College, Pune, the three-year course is still conducted well, providing an opportunity to thousands of students who have finished a bachelor’s degree to pursue a professional course and become a lawyer within three years. Abolition of the three-year course would mean that those students who did not opt for law immediately after the twelfth grade but are interested in it later after their bachelor's degree would have no means of doing so.

While it is important to stop the entry of criminals into the noble profession of law, abolishing the three-year course entirely is a drastic step which may not even adequately address the issue. Better results could be achieved by clamping down on law colleges which confer fake degrees without actually imparting legal education.