The is a reproduction of the writeup with the same title published on LegallyIndia.com here.
NUJS Kolkata professor Shamnad Basheer has begun a pilot project to increase access to the legal profession to those from poorer backgrounds, seeking to grow it into a mass movement with funding and involvement from lawyers and students across India.
Basheer and four NUJS students visited a government senior secondary school in the town of Pelling in the North-Eastern state of Sikkim last week, with visits to further towns and villages on the agenda.
They gave career advice lectures and administered an aptitude test to around 120 year 11 students in order to prepare them for the possible taking of the Common Law Admissions Test (CLAT) and entry into law school next year.
"The current student composition at many of the NLUs lack any serious diversity and comprise mainly of English medium educated students from middle class or upper middle class families," said Basheer (pictured below left). "The numbers from rural areas, small towns, lower income groups or non-English speaking schools are deplorable."
He explained that the principal arguments of why one would want more diversity were very simple.
"One is the argument that law is an instrument of power and can be wielded to effectuate social justice and change. Why should a large section of the population not be given access to that power?" he asked, adding that armed with a good legal education these marginalised students would have a much better shot at improving their lot and the communities they represent.
"Second, law schools ought to value diversity for its own sake. A more diverse student community engenders a more diverse set of views and discussions in the classroom and makes for better legal education in the process."
The NUJS team
Current NUJS second year students Tanuj Kalia and Javedur Rahman, and fourth year students Diptoshree Basu and Radhika Sarkar accompanied Basheer on the first trip to Sikkim, which Basheer self-funded.
But Basheer said that although this started out as an NUJS group, it would have to turn into a "pan-India mass movement" to become successful.
One of the main challenges faced, he explained, was cultural. "Some of our brightest students [in Sikkim]who had done well in the aptitude test and seemed eager to seriously consider law as a career faced resistance from parents and teachers because they would want them to be doctors or engineers.
"There is a huge cultural bias against the law and there has to be a huge sensitisation programme, preferably from people who have some kind of personal nexus [to rural areas]."
"But students really loved it," he added. "Even the science guys."
A second obstacle, which affects budding engineers to a far lesser degree, was the level of English language skills, which the ongoing programme is meant to address with classes and practice sessions to "crack the CLAT".
The third large obstacle, according to Basheer, was the tuition fees charged at the top law schools. Around 10 years ago when Basheer was a student at NLSIU Bangalore, tuition fees were tiered and based on a means-testing system where less well-off students paid lower fees. But he lamented that most law colleges had now abolished this system and charged uniformly high fees that were unaffordable to those from poorer backgrounds.
However, NUJS has now tentatively agreed to give preference to students from poor backgrounds in the scholarship funds it can provide to up to 10 per cent of students, said Basheer.
"We want to make it into mass participatory collaborative movement," he added, although he admitted this would require funds and support from a large number of lawyers, law firms and spirited public individuals across India.
Earlier this year NUJS student Ramanuj Mukherjee independently launched an online social networking platform to help those from poorer backgrounds to "crack" the CLAT online.
If you wish to assist with funding, time or learn more about Basheer's programme you can email him at shamnad[at]gmail[dot]com