Home >politics >policy >Bribery case exposes the rot in legal education

In May 2010, then-prime minister Manmohan Singh made a few headlines by saying what nearly every lawyer and educator in the country knew to be true: he called Indian legal education a “sea of institutionalized mediocrity", dotted with a few “islands of excellence".

Around the same time, fresh air was gusting through the corridors of the Bar Council of India (BCI): senior counsel Gopal Subramanium had become the body’s chairman. Unlike other members, he was not elected by lawyers, but became ex-officio chairman by dint of his position as solicitor general.

By July 2010, Subramanium had begun to shake things up, having announced the first All India Bar Exam as well as a revolutionary proposal to reduce the number of law colleges from 913 to 175 in a matter of years.

Not wasting any time, according to BCI meeting minutes then published on the council’s website, by September 2010, the BCI had outright rejected 37 law schools’ applications for accreditation; 17 colleges were refused permission to offer five-year LLB degrees.

By 2012, a year after Subramanium was forced to leave the BCI after resigning as solicitor general, the number of law schools stood at around 800, according to his successor chairman and senior counsel Ashok Parija.

Subramanium’s and Parija’s ambitious targets were never achieved.

Quite the opposite, in fact: by early 2014, the number of law schools had increased to a record level of 1,200, after many of the disaffiliated colleges filed writ petitions or were allowed back onto the books, with hundreds of new ones having been granted permission by the BCI to operate.

Between April and December 2014 alone, 92 new colleges were given the BCI’s blessings to start up, according to information provided by the council to the law ministry.

Where did it all go wrong?

A damning 107-page judgement delivered last week by Patiala House Court special judge Anju Bajaj Chandna may hold some answers.

Chandna held in the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) trial that there was no reasonable doubt that three elected BCI members had regularly conspired to extort money from law colleges to pass “factual" or “favourable" inspection reports.

After hearing 24 witnesses, and examining the 28 phone calls made in 2010 (wiretapped by the CBI with approval from the home ministry), Chandna roundly rejected the former elected BCI officials’ defence.

Their names are Rajinder Singh Rana (who had been elected to the Bar Council of Delhi), senior counsel Milan Kumar Dey (elected to the Jharkhand State Bar Council) and Dhanapal Raj (elected to the Bar Council of Tamil Nadu).

All three were BCI members in October 2010 when they accepted the bribe, and Raj was the body’s vice-chairman, the CBI said.

All three were sentenced by Chandna to five years in jail each for one to three separate offences under the Prevention of Corruption Act, 1988, in addition to being fined between 1 lakh and 3 lakh each.

An assistant professor at NREC College in Khurja, Uttar Pradesh, was jailed for five years for abetting the bribes.

Rana and Raj are both facing trial in three other similar cases, at least one of which concerns a bribe solicited for inspecting another law school, Global College of Law, Ghaziabad, according to their bail application with the Delhi high court.

“There are other cases where (Rana and Raj) have been charge-sheeted, which may end with the same result," Parija said. “This is really high time for the Bar Council to put its house in order."

In August 2010, School of Law Studies in Bulandshahr, Uttar Pradesh, had obtained the requisite government permission, by way of a no-objection certificate, and was affiliated to Chaudhary Charan Singh University, Meerut.

But it was not yet a law school.

On 8 August 2010, it wrote an application to the BCI, asking it to be allowed to begin teaching law to students from the coming academic year.

The BCI is supposed to check that a law school can impart a satisfactory legal education with a physical inspection of the campus.

Then-BCI vice-chairman Raj eventually sent Rana and Dey to Bulandshahr on 29 and 30 October 2010 to carry out the inspection and meet the law college’s principal and chairman Prashaant Garg.

After visiting the law school on 29 October, according to the judgement and the CBI wiretaps, Rana, Raj and Dey “had mutual discussions regarding demand of bribe" from Garg.

The wiretaps revealed that the three BCI members could not agree on exactly how much money to extort from the Bulandshahr law-school-to-be.

On 31 October, Raj and Dey talked on the phone, discussing the potential of reducing their bribe request of 10 lakh to 8 lakh or 6 lakh.

On 1 November, Dey and Rana apparently negotiated over how much they should charge, with Dey initially not wanting to budge from the higher bribe request of 10 lakh for producing a “favourable report" about the college, which would carry their implicit guarantee that the BCI would greenlight the college.

However, Dey finally agreed with Rana to them taking only 3 lakh for a “factual report" of the college “without having any responsibility" as to whether the BCI would accredit the college or not. That would work out to 1 lakh to each of the three BCI members involved.

“The conversations clearly demonstrate", wrote Chandna, that the three BCI members “have been seeking bribe from other colleges also and the present one is not an isolated incident."

On 3 November, Garg paid Rana 2.5 lakh in cash, followed by the remaining 50,000 in cash on 8 November.

“It is unfortunate that persons responsible for upholding law indulged into corrupt activities and violated the rule of law," she added, drily. “It is clear that accused have been seeking bribe from new and old law colleges as a matter of right. The demand in such form is nothing but extortion and also amounts to professional misconduct."

Despite Rana, Raj and Dey having been arrested in 2010 and the case for the defence having been exceedingly weak, the convictions took more than five years.

But without the wiretaps following an apparent anonymous tip-off received by the CBI (surveillance orders had been “issued by top officers of home ministry… on the basis of concrete source information", said Chandna), it is likely the case would have taken longer or died of exhaustion.

Indeed, cases against lawyers by the police are rare, and even rarer are those against lawyers’ elected representatives—whether on statutory bar councils or the more numerous and informal bar associations.

“This is the first time a member of the Bar Council of India has been convicted," claimed Parija.

After Rana’s 2010 arrest, the three BCI members were at some point suspended from the BCI (though they remained state bar council members).

The date of their suspension from the BCI is hard to pinpoint exactly (the BCI did not respond to requests for comment), but according to the judgement, Dey was still a BCI member from Jharkhand until 21 June 2012.

Raj was granted interim anticipatory bail by the Madras high court, though anticipatory bail was not extended in early 2011 by the Delhi high court and the Supreme Court, where Raj was represented by none other than senior counsel Ram Jethmalani.

Rana spent some time in jail in 2010 and 2011 and was refused bail several times (the Delhi high court on 29 December 2010 cited Rana’s “influence" and “apprehension of tampering of the evidence" to deny him bail).

However, at some point, Rana did get out on bail and was appointed associate managing trustee of the Bar Council of India Trust (he is still listed on the BCI website as holding that position).

Parija commented that Rana having been appointed to the BCI trustee role, “notwithstanding that charges were framed against him for the offences… is completely unethical".

Parija’s successor and current BCI chairman Manan Kumar Mishra did not respond to two emails seeking comment on Rana’s appointment.

Despite the difficulties in getting this far, when the CBI trial finally commenced in November 2015, the three BCI members’ defences were altogether more weak.

Rana, Raj and Dey “categorically denied" having raised a bribe demand or having accepted 3 lakh from Garg and offered several excuses, including denying having ever inspected the college and claimed the voices on the tapes were not theirs.

The judge eventually concluded, in a 107-page judgement: “In the face of strong prosecution evidence, accused have no substantial defence, there is nothing on record to indicate that accused are innocent or falsely implicated."

The amounts at stake in this instance are arguably small ( 3 lakh in this case, and allegedly 6 lakh in the still pending Global College of Law case).

But this is an important case. In the words of Chandna, the “convicts were handed over important task of ensuring good standards of legal education for future generation, but they preferred to keep aside ethical principles for monetary gains".

But with three cases still pending against Rana, Raj and Dey, and Chandna suggesting in her judgement that this was clearly not an isolated incident, the question deserves to be asked whether this was just the tip of the iceberg and whether they were the only members ever involved.

If it was possible for law schools to buy “favourable" or even “factual" inspection reports for a few lakh rupees, is there a correlation to 900 law colleges—a “sea of mediocrity" to cite Manmohan Singh—having sprung up by 2010?

And what does it say that in the six years since then, despite the arrests of Rana and others, the number of law schools had again increased by 50%?

But these are not just questions that need to be asked about the legal profession.

As Chandna pointed out in her judgement, “The situation raises a range of questions about role, conduct and accountability of such governing institutions and their office-bearers towards the society."

Indeed, regulators such as the Medical Council of India (MCI) have—perhaps deservedly in light of the number of medical students and the enormous responsibility doctors hold—faced far more attention and controversy than the BCI has.

The central government certainly seems to be aware. Like the United Progressive Alliance government before it, the current National Democratic Alliance government has also proposed that regulators such as the BCI and MCI need to be reformed.

And only last week, heeding a call by the Supreme Court earlier this month, the Law Commission opened up a consultation about the regulation of the legal profession and legal education.

Kian Ganz is publishing editor of Legally India.

Mint’s association with LegallyIndia.com will bring you regular insight and analysis of major developments in law and the legal world.

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