The law admission limit seems unfair and discriminatory to prospective law students. It has reduced their freedom to choose educational and employment options. It is discriminatory because prospective non-lawyer students do not face this restriction outside of universities. Restricting sources of supply does not necessarily improve legal education and the quality of law graduates.
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Universities in Bangladesh, both public and private, run their LLB (Hons) program in accordance with a court-determined and court-imposed admission limit of 50 students per semester. This limitation may very well have compelling reasons at the time of its imposition. This article argues that the limitation does not seem, so far, to achieve its objective and that it warrants a reassessment with a view to its cancellation.
A dispute arose over competing claims of (mis)management by the board of Darul Ihsan University, a private university. Some of its LLB (Hons) graduates have been barred from sitting the bar exam by the Bangladesh Bar Council (BBC). In their writ petition to the High Court Division (HCD), these law graduates challenged the legality of the ban. The HCD had to determine if the ban was legal. But the HCD went beyond the relief sought and imposed restrictions on the admission of law students, set admission criteria, and commented on the management of law departments at all private universities. It ruled: “No private university shall be permitted to admit more than 100 students in any calendar year… [the] The BBC itself will monitor the admissions process for the LLB (Honours) course at private universities: Professor Syed Ali Naki and Ors. against Bangladesh and Ors. (2016) 36 BLD (HCD) 417, para 130, 154. On appeal, the Appellate Division (AD) held: “No public or private university shall admit undergraduate law students more than 50 students per semester : Bangladesh Bar Council v AKM Fazlul Karim (2017) 14 ADC 271, para 101.
Where did this magic admission number come from and what were the reasons for setting this limit? No one knows and judgments are silent. The public is not expected to always understand and be satisfied with every judgment. But the courts are in a position of power to dispense justice, and in exercising that power on behalf of the people, they must be able to defend and explain how their judicial powers are exercised. regardless of the size, capacity, resources and age of all law departments, universities require the century-old law department of Dhaka University to enroll the same number as that of a counterpart recently or in to create. This parity ignores these diversities and creates winners and losers among universities that set different departmental admission limits based on their logistics and strengths.
The HCD’s order on the academic management of all private universities went beyond all relevance to the remedy sought – the eligibility of Darul Ihsan law graduates to sit for the bar exam. The AD on appeal reprimanded the HCD for passing an order for all private universities when only one of them was a party to the case and found it inconsistent with the law: Bangladesh Bar Council v AKM Fazlul Karim (2017) 14 ADC 271, para 61 Previously, the AD had advised the HCD not to ‘enter into academic discussion’ and to ‘go out of their way to find such topics’: Bangladesh and Ors.v Idrisur Rahman and Ors. (2009) 29 BLD (AD) 79, para 260. Authorizing the Bar Council to oversee “the process of admission to LLB (Hons) courses at private universities”, the HCD apparently created a supra-private university authority over and above the law department and university administration, university academic councils and unions, and the University Grants Commission. The Private Universities Act 2010 does not prescribe such an authority; nor did Parliament enacting the law consider it. The BBC’s Legal Education Committee has the role of regulating entry into the professional practice of law, not the legal education of private universities. The HCD made no distinction between “bar admission to be practicing lawyers” and “college admission to be law graduates.”
The Bangladesh Legal Practitioners and Bar Council Order 1972 authorizes the BBC to take steps to “promote legal education and establish standards for such education in consultation with universities in Bangladesh providing such education”. Has the BBC proposed and pursued standard-setting measures to promote legal education and consult with private universities? If admission to the restrictive law was intended to ‘promote legal education’, it was done by the courts, not the BBC. There are examples of joint ventures for the promotion of legal education in some countries, where legal professional bodies, law firms and individual donors provide funds to enrich university law libraries, hire new presidents/professors , establish new seminar/mooting facilities and provide scholarships/awards for high performing law students. A new law building, called ‘The Maker of Change’ at Macquarie University, Australia, is named after Justice Michael Kirby, a retired Supreme Court justice, in recognition of his substantial financial contribution to the construction of the building.
The law admission limit seems unfair and discriminatory to prospective law students. It has reduced their freedom to choose educational and employment options. It is discriminatory because prospective non-lawyer students do not face this restriction outside of universities. Restricting sources of supply does not necessarily improve legal education and the quality of law graduates. On the contrary, it runs the risk of unintentionally minimizing competition and maximizing the monopoly of registered lawyers. Presumably, a preconceived idea that anyone who studies law will eventually become a practicing lawyer is the source of this limit, a perception that is no longer tenable. With the WTO-supported liberalization and deregulation of trade in professional and skilled services, many law graduates are competing with non-lawyer graduates in national and cross-border, regional and international labor markets. These law graduates and others working as law firm advisers, consultants, and interpreters do not need to be called to the bar. This explains why universities should focus on producing law graduates with competitive generic skills like all other graduates. Certainly, the widely shared opinion is that the quality of university education has deteriorated in all fields, and not only in legal education. The professional legal system is also not immune to criticism of being inefficient in terms of costs and time, among other things. There appears to be no tangible evidence that these systemic problems have abated since the law enforcement limit was imposed. Shifting this role to universities is a misplaced attempt to raise the standard of legal practice.
The author is Emeritus Professor of Law, Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia.