Reforms in Legal Education: Interview with Professor (Dr.) V.S Elizabeth via Journal of Indian Law & Society of WBNUJS, Kolkata

The Journal of Indian Law & Society (JILS) is a pioneering law journal, managed by the students of West Bengal National University of Juridical Sciences, Kolkata.

As a prelude to its 10th Volume dedicated to Legal Education in India, the JILS Blog is going to publish a series of interviews with thought leaders in the Legal Education space in India.

In furtherance of its mission to enable informed and inspired careers, and to promote quality Legal Education in India, Lawctopus has collaborated with JILS Blog to publish these interviews for the benefit of its readers.

The first of the series is the interview with Professor (Dr.) V.S. Elizabeth, Vice-Chancellor of Tamil Nadu National Law University (TNNLU), Trichy.  Read on for her thoughts on the need for Gender Studies in Legal Education, creating safe-spaces in law schools and transitioning to online classes.

INTERVIEW BEGINS

Question 1: Professor Elizabeth, could you share with us your journey through law schools that has led you to your current academic position? 

Professor Elizabeth: I have taught in the National Law School of India University for almost 29 years now. I taught before that as a part-time lecturer in a Pre University College for 2 years, one year in an undergraduate degree college for women and four years as a UGC Junior Research Fellow in the department of history, Mangalore University, I taught the Masters students there. All this teaching experience has contributed to who and what I am today.

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At NLSIU I taught three courses in History and optional courses on Violence Against Women, Feminist Jurisprudence etc. I also taught the LLM students Women’s Human Rights and Feminist Jurisprudence. I supervised quite a few of the LLM dissertations in related areas. The icing on the cake, of course, was supervising Dr. Saumya Uma’s PhD work.

Besides all this teaching I was the Coordinator of the Centre for Women and Law from 1994 till I stepped down in 2012. I coordinated various research activities, training programs particularly on domestic violence, constitutional rights of women, their legal rights in relation to property, the justice system etc.

In fact as Coordinator, I initiated the conduct of the legal literacy program in quite a few colleges in Bangalore. The longest such program has been with St Joseph’s College of Arts and Science, Bangalore.

In October 2015 I was appointed as Coordinator of the Centre for Child and the Law. My role here was restricted to coordinating the various programs of my colleagues related to children’s rights, supporting them and motivating them to apply for funding and ensuring that everything worked smoothly while dealing effectively with the challenges that came up from time to time particularly in trying to ensure that the Centre and the academic activities of NLSIU synchronized.

In addition to all this, from the very beginning of my career at NLSIU, I was given various administrative responsibilities from being Warden and Chief Warden of the Halls of Residences to admissions, scholarship, examinations etc. The only responsibilities I wasn’t given was that of the registrar and the distance education program.

As a result, I don’t have many publications to my credit or at least as many I could have. All my publications have been the result of demands from various people for their journals, books etc. They are almost all on aspects of law from a feminist perspective.

Due to all this experience and activities, I was invited to be a founding member of the International Association of Law Schools, the Gender and Law Association (which unfortunately had a very short life) and also as a member of the High-Level Committee on the Status of Women by the Government of India.

The culmination of this journey is the recent appointment as Vice-Chancellor of TNNLU by the grace of God. From my appointment as Research Associate in NLSIU in 1991 to each and every experience and opportunity I have had since then I see the hand of God.

 

Question 2: Could you tell us what developed your interest in the arena of feminist jurisprudence and distributive justice? What impact do you think law schools can have on shaping their future? 

Professor Elizabeth: As a Christian one is brought up to be sensitive to the needs of the most marginalized, to care about them, love them and make a difference. So I would say that caring about distributive justice is an inherent part of who I am as a person.

On the other hand, becoming a feminist is due to the challenge of being a girl and a woman in this world. My particular movement towards Feminist Jurisprudence is the result of reading some of the judicial decisions with regard to rape and other kinds of sexual assault of children and women.

I couldn’t come to terms with the absolute lack of sensitivity to these violations of women’s bodies and their physical space, the injustice in the punishments awarded and the utter callousness towards the impact on the lives of the victims and survivors in the reasoning leading up to the award of punishments.

This happened during an exchange program that NLSIU made possible with the School of Law, University of Warwick, UK. It was Professor Ann Stewart who led me onto this path.

Feminist Jurisprudence has to be a mandatory course to be taught within the first three years of Law School. It will change the perspectives of every student, challenge the stereotypes they come with and sensitise them to those around them.

Feminist legal methods will challenge every dominant stereotype be it gender, caste, class, sexuality or anything else. Nothing can remain the same after that unless you deliberately choose to do so. The current world view, a dominate male one, will not be the default world view.

 

Question 3: What differences do you find in NLS and TNNLU, considering you have held academic positions in both law schools? What do you think aggravates these differences and how could we aim at limiting them?

Professor Elizabeth: NLS has the advantage of having invented the way legal education is carried out in the NLUs. The founding faculty had the complete freedom to reimagine legal education in India. As pioneers, they borrowed a few ideas, adapted and modified them creating an exciting, challenging environment for both faculty and students.

Those were heady days, so much excitement and passion within the classrooms and outside, in the faculty rooms, corridors and Halls of Residences. But the very success in creating efficient researchers became the reason for its downfall at a time that the economy was opening up, the law firms were beginning to expand and they didn’t have to waste time in teaching the new recruits to research, analyse and write.

They offered nice pay packages that advocates were unwilling to. Legal education became expensive as NLSIU sought to avoid the regulation by Government and UGC and so refused to take financial support from them. NLSIU has had a unique birth and growth in that sense, the then Government of Karnataka, the Bar and the Bench allowed NLSIU to function without any interference and supported the founding Director and faculty always.

Over the last 15 years or more it lost the vision, became as mediocre as things used to be, compromised on quality, distance grew between faculty and students and it became just a factory producing graduates for the law firms. Instead of innovating and experimenting as it did in the first ten years, it followed the market.

Fortunately, there continues to be the flow of individual students who have excelled in their chosen areas who have continued to pursue the dreams that made NLSIU what it is and so NLSIU has still remained the leader.

TNNLU, on the other hand, is the product of a government initiative and hasn’t had the advantage of visionary leadership. There is not much of a problem with finances, unlike NLSIU which is probably the worst in terms of infrastructure compared to all the others.

TNNLU is still having teething problems after 7 years despite the efforts of my two immediate predecessors.  One is fire fighting all the time.

What’s needed is a team of dedicated faculty, daring to dream, committed to making sacrifices in order to see the fulfilment of those dreams and a student body that wants quality legal education not just a law degree from a NLU in order to make it big in the world.

If faculty and students have a passionate desire for justice, to learn, to dare to change themselves and the world around them then TNNLU can come to occupy her own place in the world of NLUs and not be just one of the many law colleges in this country.

 

Question 4: For a person who has been associated with teaching law students across several batches, what differences do you find in the students from recent batches? Are these changes in students’ approach and the law school culture destined to bring positive impact in society?

Professor Elizabeth: Lots of differences. The students who came to NLSIU in the first five years were far different from those that came after. They came from middle-class families, for whom education was to the key to change. They and their parents were really daring to join an institution that had not yet seen the light of day.

Clearly they wanted something different and that was a time there was a close relationship between the students and the faculty. This is not to say that everything was hunky-dory all the time or for everyone.

The batches after that till the 1999 admission again were different in some ways but largely still from a very similar background and from diverse parts of India. Just a casual look at the work that the graduates of Law School are doing even through this pandemic will tell you that.

From 1999 the success of the first ten batches brought aspirants from a quite different background to the Law Schools, for the success of NLSIU led to Law Universities coming into existence in other states, the recruitment by law firms and the salaries they offered became the attraction so much so that CLAT had to come into being. Now there are over 25 NLUs.

Has all this been for the better? I am not so sure. Yes, in terms of places and class the student body is more diverse but what I have seen is that it is more casteist, misogynistic and communalistic. There’s not as much sensitivity to marginalized groups.

Once again this is not to undermine the work of those who are socially responsible and doing their bit to make a difference within the Law Schools and outside.  Clearly the way education is imparted has to change if legal education through NLUs has to ensure a more equitable and just society.

 

Question 5: Considering your immense work related to gender and socio-economic disparity, what do you think are the possible barriers that law students face? Further, how does the intersectionality affect their performance and how could we create a level playing field?

Professor Elizabeth: Unless we cease teaching law from a positivist perspective we can’t change society. Positivism as a philosophy seeks to ensure the dominance of the privileged. It is not for social transformation. Law has to be taught from the perspectives of the marginalized only then can you create a sensitive student body and graduates who will challenge the status quo.

Today students from scheduled caste and tribe backgrounds, women and sexual minorities face various challenges and obstacles within the classroom and outside. They have a higher mountain to climb than most upper caste, straight men have to in making it into the legal profession.

Those who succeed do so through their sheer grit and determination with little or no institutional support. What we need is for the institutions to wake up to this and not rest on the laurels of the privileged few. The leadership, faculty and students have to be sensitized in a systematic and continuous way so that all the necessary changes-institutional, academic and procedural are made.

You need counselling facilities to respond to the mental and emotional wellbeing that is crucial for success within the institutions and outside.

The very curriculum should be more tuned towards an all-around education just as any University should impart and not just what the law firms expect. After 40 years of the NLSIU experiment, it’s more than time to reform legal education keeping the 21st-century world in mind.

 

Question 6: The courses that you taught in law school reveals your interest in women’s rights and how you choose to teach through feminist lenses. How much of an impact, according to your observation, does actively incorporating feminism in subjects have?

Professor Elizabeth: This is an easy question to answer and yet it’s a question that you should ask my students. I believe that it makes a big difference.

It challenges the stereotypes, the status quo, all the previously held biases and prejudices and for those open and eager to learn, grow and change it changes the very way they look at the world. Nothing can be the same and one cannot ignore what one views, reads and discusses.

 

Question 7: Is there any specific reason as to why you choose to teach history from a Marxist-feminist perspective? How does teaching with respect to a particular ideology encourage discussion? 

Professor Elizabeth: I was introduced to Marxist perspective in writing history when I went to the Mangalore University to pursue my PhD. I read “What is History” by E.H. Carr for the first time there. It revolutionized my understanding of History as a discipline. I fell in love with the subject. It was also there, through my friends in the Literature department that I was introduced to feminism.

But the integration of feminist perspective with Marxism happened after quite a few years of my teaching at NLS. Since almost all students are taught history from a nationalist positivist perspective the approach I take leads to questioning me, themselves and over a period of time the world around them.

They realise that there are different ways of looking at the past and the world that the dominant perspective is not absolute. This approach to studying the past and history empowers the marginalized and also those who have been uncomfortable with what they have been taught till then.

 

Question 8: According to you, how can we create a safer environment for women in law schools, taking into account the increasing cases of sexual abuse that remain unresolved?

Professor Elizabeth: Gender sensitization, creating awareness about the impact of sexual harassment and having classes on sex education could go a long way to prevent sexual harassment on campus.

In addition, taking a zero-tolerance approach to cases of sexual harassment and having a sensitive and effective internal committee and sexual harassment policy can ensure that perpetrators are dealt with effectively. There can be no misplaced sympathy nor condonation of acts of sexual harassment.

Besides all this should be mandatory counselling and community service for violations. Otherwise, there will be no change in the attitude of perpetrators.

At the same time, it’s important that women are taught self-respect, self-confidence and encouraged to speak up. We need a proper program in counselling to do this as part of the education.  Encouraging women to participate in sports and leadership roles is an important part of this.

 

Question 9: What measures can be taken to make college campuses more inclusive for trans persons as most campuses including law schools lack adequate infrastructure and policies that include them? 

Professor Elizabeth: Most of the measures are similar to the solutions for the problem of sexual harassment.

Only one needs to ensure that trans persons are included in the programs and in the very envisioning of the spaces and infrastructure on campus. Our discussion and examples have to be more diverse than what we pursue right now assuming that the world consists of straight upper-caste men.

 

Question 10: In light of the recent changes in the CLAT pattern, how, according to you, this would affect the accessibility to premier law schools? Further, how do we weigh the issue of accessibility barriers with the importance of English language for a law student? 

Professor Elizabeth: The recent changes are good. You should check the pattern of the entrance exams that used to be conducted by NLSIU before CLAT. Of course, it will not be conducive for those who go through a rote system of education in school, where little application of mind is required or actual learning.

What’s needed is substantial reforms in school education. If we want citizens who think and reason then what we have cannot continue.

Similarly English is the lingua franca of the world. The aspirants to these Law Universities want to work in the law firms, go abroad etc that is only possible by learning to read, write and speak fluently in English.  Once again the school systems have to facilitate this.

Of course once students who have difficulties with English get into the NLUs then there has to be systematic support organized to help them. This is not a difficult task.

 

Question 11: Amidst the global pandemic that has accelerated the culture of having online classes and assessments, numerous questions regarding accessibility arise. How do you think universities should proceed with the evaluation system?

Professor Elizabeth: I think universities should get to know their students and their backgrounds and then design the classes and evaluation around that. We have to ensure that there’s equal access and same opportunities for all our students.

This is the time to innovate and we don’t have to follow the herd. We can develop our own unique responses according to the needs of our student community.

 

Question 12: Professor, mental health issues related to the burdensome curriculum of legal education are becoming more common everyday. Could you suggest some changes that should be considered for revising the curriculum?

Professor Elizabeth: I don’t think that the curriculum is burdensome. In fact, there’s been a great deal of development in technology which makes research and writing far easier than when the curriculum was first developed 32 years ago.

What has changed are the co-curricular and extra-curricular activities. There are far too many of them and students have been passed on false and wrong information that participating in all of them is the key to securing the best law firm job.

As a result, students are focusing on these than the classes and the assignments and exams. The consequence is they fare badly and blame it on the curriculum. One should be going to a University to get an education, not the qualification to procure a job. This is, of course, is an old discussion, what is the role of Law Schools?

 

Question 13: Professor, could you share your advice for law students who are striving for success in today’s climate, especially with regards to those interested in legal research and writing?

Professor Elizabeth: Read, write your projects. Don’t scam, don’t cut and paste. If every student sincerely worked for all their projects, or at least till the end of the third year just the routine of reading, asking the right questions and writing will ensure that they have good research, analytical and writing skills. Those three are the key to success in every field, whether as lawyers or otherwise.

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