Our bar council is stuck in its autocratic ways
The vast majority of law graduates in Bangladesh face obstacles in entering the legal profession. Despite holding a law degree, graduates of universities within and outside Bangladesh are unable to practice in court. Even Bangladeshi barristers called to the English bar are unable to practice in court.
Entry to the legal profession in Bangladesh takes place by passing a bar council exam. These exams were once held annually. But in recent times, bar council exams have been delayed for years on end. The last bar council exam in 2020 took place after a delay of several years.
The format of exams is divided into MCQs, writing, and viva voce. Each section of the exam is held on different dates. For example, the gap between an MCQ exam and a writing exam can be many months.
Given that Bangladesh operates different mediums of education, bar council exams have to be accessible for students from different backgrounds. The language of the law has to be accessible to the common person. In England, laws are increasingly framed in a layman’s language.
Bar council exams espouse a classical and Tagorean form of Bengali. This is unreasonable because many Bangladeshi laws are indeed framed in layman’s language, while a large portion of laws are inherited from the British period. Exams should be drafted in accessible language.
Linguistic human rights should be respected. The legal system is a legacy of our tryst with British rule and the presence of the English language in our sub-continent for more than three centuries. Students from an English medium background should have an equal opportunity to practice in court on par with students from Bengali and other mediums.
The most significant reform required for entry to the legal profession is the introduction of bar vocational degrees. A one-year professional practice course should be introduced in selected universities to prepare law graduates to practice in court. This vocational course can be a more meritocratic and competitive alternative to the current exam system of the bar council.
The post-graduate vocational course can impart more rigorous training than undergraduate courses. These courses can be taught at specified universities and institutions.
Bangladesh can replicate the English model of one-year post-graduate legal training courses. In England and Wales, completing the bar course allows one to be called to one of the four Inns of Court as a barrister. After being called to the bar, the person has to undertake a pupillage. For solicitors, the post-graduate vocational degree is called the legal practice course (LPC).
Elsewhere in the Commonwealth of Nations, Malaysia has a nine-month vocational course which results in a Certificate in Legal Practice (CLP) that allows law graduates to become advocates.
New Zealand requires law graduates to complete the Professional Legal Studies Course (PLSC) to become a barrister and solicitor. Outside the Commonwealth, the Irish Republic has a one-year barrister-at-law degree offered by the King’s Inn in Dublin which allows law graduates to become barristers.
In Hong Kong, law graduates have to complete the post-graduate certificate in laws to practice in court.
These post-graduate vocational courses are taught at university. In contrast, law graduates in Bangladesh have to rely on question papers and private coaching to sit for the single bar council exam. Over the years, the number of examinees has grown exponentially. There are so many examinees that the bar council struggles to find seats for an exam on a single day.
Clearly, there is a strong quantitative supply of law graduates. How do we move towards a strong qualitative practice in court? The bar council should devolve vocational training to higher educational institutions. Vocational courses will churn out the best law graduates for court practice.
It is therefore imperative to shift from the current uniform bar council exam system to a system of post-graduate legal training degrees in universities. The government should muster the political will to implement such reforms.
It all comes down to a question of whether Bangladesh wants the best legal minds to succeed our preeminent older generation in the legal fraternity.
There is a lot to live up to. There is also a lot to work towards the future. But our bar council is stuck in its autocratic and reticent ways.
Umran Chowdhury works in the legal field.