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Raising the bar

Shouvik Kumar Guha, a fresh graduate from the West Bengal National University of Juridical Science (WBNUJS), Calcutta, has been eagerly waiting to practise in court. But clearing the Common Law Admission Test (CLAT) — for entry to law schools in the country — and a rigorous five-year training thereafter are not enough, feels the Bar Council of India (BCI). Guha will now have to pass another test — the All India Bar Examination (AIBE), conducted by the BCI — before he can join the Bar.

The AIBE, to be held in the first quarter of 2011, is aimed at testing the knowledge and standard of law graduates in the country. The decision to implement it has expectedly evoked mixed reactions from students, teachers and the legal fraternity at large. While students feel they are being burdened with yet another exam, academia and the legal world welcome the move.

Sayonee Dasgupta, a fourth-year student of WBNUJS, is not happy with the idea of another hurdle to cross after completing her degree. If engineers and doctors don’t have to clear such a test, why should law students — who have had to tackle CLAT — be asked to do so, she argues. “The Advocates Act doesn’t provide for such a screening,” she points out.

Calcutta High Court advocate Amjad Ali Sardar, however, thinks otherwise. Speaking on whether or not an amendment is needed for sanctioning the AIBE, he says, “According to the Advocates Act, the BCI and the state are the registering authorities and have been assigned the power to issue licences to budding lawyers. The BCI, therefore, has a right to form its own rules for getting a new lawyer enrolled. No amendment is essential.”

Some may be opposed to the winds of change in legal education. But for Gopal Subramaniam, Solicitor General of India and BCI registrar, and the person responsible for introducing the AIBE, the new test will ensure uniformity in the legal fraternity. Students from a non-elite background may find it easier to work in the legal sector, he says.

“Such an exam is necessary, especially in a climate where every profession requires review to ensure that only those who are fully equipped embark on practice. CLAT does not test students on law, but on their aptitude to study law. Moreover, it is administered to school students, not law graduates,” he points out.

The Bar exam is compulsory in countries like the UK and the US, from where much of our jurisprudence flows. In England, there are separate exams for qualifying as a barrister and a solicitor, while in the US, every state has a separate Bar exam. Even in India, solicitors in Mumbai and the Supreme Court have to pass difficult tests to be able to file matters.

So what does the new test require? Students must apply to the BCI to register themselves for the AIBE. The test will cost Rs 1,300 and will be held twice a year. Registered students will receive study material from the BCI. “Providing the material will help standardise the quality of knowledge of the students, irrespective of the college they come from,” adds Subramaniam.

The paper will comprise 100 objective-type questions covering 20 subjects, and needs to be completed in three and a half hours, says Gopal Sankaranarayanan, a Supreme Court advocate. Candidates must choose their subjects from the syllabi prescribed by the BCI for the three-year and five-year LLB programmes.

Justifying the move, Faizan Mohammad, vice-chancellor of the National Law University, Orissa, says, “CLAT is applicable only to the 13 national law universities. India has about 914 law colleges. Some are very bad. The Bar exam will judge the suitability to practice.”

There are others who are of the same opinion. “Given the abysmal state of some of the law colleges, this filter will ensure a relatively higher quality of lawyers than what we currently have,” says Shamnad Basheer, a professor at WBNUJS.

Students need not get too worried about the test, assure experts. “It’s an open book exam — so one can expect a friendly approach,” says Shashikala Gurpur, director of Symbiosis Law School, Pune, and member of the Law Commission of India. “Those from the vernacular medium and small towns may take some time to adjust. However, as the number of attempts is limitless, they will crack it with some coaching, if required,” she adds.

Initially, the AIBE was scheduled to be held on December 5, 2010. However, “many students and state Bar councils made representations to the BCI for more time to peruse the study materials and for enrolments by the states to be complete. Keeping in view the welfare of the students and the legitimate concerns of the state Bar councils, the date of the exam has been postponed,” says Sankaranarayanan. The revised date of the exam is March 22, 2011.

A good move at an appropriate time. Here’s hoping that the AIBE helps improve the Indian legal system.

Points to ponder

Check the Bar council website (www.barcouncilofindia.org) for updates

The exam is an open book one; you can carry in anything you want

Your legal knowledge, not memory, will be tested

100 objective-type questions are to be answered in 210 minutes — that is, at least two minutes to shade the correct option.

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