Online Legal Education

COVID-19 outbreak has forced the educational institutions to wrap-up the classes. The Higher Education Commission of Pakistan (HEC) 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. Certainly, Pakistan is not a tech-savvy country and our institutions lack infrastructure and resources. The advantages of on-campus education such as peer learning and the importance of face-to-face interaction are also not denied. But, it is equally important to experiment innovation in legal education, especially when we are confronting a crisis and technology can help to handle it. So, despite all challenges, our law schools should experiment online legal education in Pakistan.

In the absence of a clear national policy, legal education in Pakistan has come to a standstill. In the past, legal education was largely ignored by our policymakers and regulators. However, 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 unauthorized law colleges; the hiring of faculty; and the conduct of Law Admission Test (LAT); and the establishment of the Directorate of Legal Education in the Pakistan Bar Council (PBC).

Despite these broad directions, the regulators remained focused on numbers: the number of classrooms, the number of books in a library, the number of faculty at a law school, and the number of admissions. The quality of legal education altogether ignored. A one-size-fits-all policy was applied to all law schools notwithstanding their capacity and academic resources. It damaged those law schools who have a cause and commitment to legal education. The Pakistan Bar Council Legal Education Rules, 2015, seem to have been drafted without meaningful consultation with law schools and universities. These rule, absent strong rationality, present an insurmountable challenge for law schools. As a result, our legal education remains poor. The COVID crisis, however, presents us with an opportunity to revise our legal education policy.

The crisis has added to the difficulties of law schools. The faculty and students are desperately looking for online resources, alongside the issues of internet access and stability. The universities are struggling to conduct online classes and exams. In the circumstances, the government must support universities and law schools to improve their internet infrastructure and access to online databases. A free or subsidised internet package for students must be provided. The government must also provide free laptops to students, who cannot afford to buy expensive gadgets. In the meanwhile, law schools need to survey how institutions in other countries are coping with the crisis. It would help to deliver online legal education more effectively in Pakistan.

We need to revise institutional outlook and reconfigure teaching methods. The law schools need to experiment with 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. Our law schools should harness this opportunity. Online legal education is not only a necessity of time, but can also be offered as a selling point, as it brings numerous advantages to students i.e., reduced costs, flexibility, and customization of learning modules.

As a transitory measure, the 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 moved before the SC seeking reconsideration of the issues about the numbers of faculty, students, and law school admissions. Now a law professor can teach hundreds of students through 100% online platforms or hybrid arrangements. Access to online databases 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, should also be amended in line with the requirements of the present times. A law made in 1973 or 2002 cannot cater to the changing requirements and fast-changing landscape of legal education. Our policymakers need to appreciate the phenomenal changes occurring worldwide in every sector. A new era begins now. 2020. Therefore, the earlier we change our conception and mode of teaching better it would be.

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 in law. For introducing online legal education, the HEC and the government must support law schools. It will improve the legal profession and our justice system.

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