The loss of a legal eagle
A true visionary, Prof Menon can be single-handedly credited with pioneering a new approach to law education which at once became the standard across the country
Story: Dr | Manasvi | 16th May 2019, 02:52 Hrs
Dr Manasvi M. Kamat
Referred by the who’s who in the country as the legal legend, pioneering spirit and a doyen of legal education, giant of the profession, a visionary father of India’s legal education, single-most influential, and already in-his-lifetime legendary Prof. N. R. Madhava Menon (NRM) passed away last week. NRM was 84 and he succumbed to cancer of the liver.
NMN is being rightly remembered as one of post-independent India’s foremost legal educationists and institution builders; developing its infrastructure, educational curriculum and reputation within the academic community. Recognised for single-handedly shaping the modern Indian legal profession by founding National Law School of India University (NLSIU) Bangalore, National Judicial Academy (NJA) Bhopal and National University of Juridical Sciences (NUJS) Kolkata, NMN laid a successful model of legal education which paved the way for all the subsequent National Law Universities in the country.
Born in Kerala, NMN practised as a lawyer before the Kerala HC. After passing his civil services exam and taking up responsibility at the Central Secretariat in Delhi he completed his LLM and PhD from Aligarh Muslim University in 1965, making him the first non-Muslim to do so. He then moved to academics and joined his Alma matter as faculty before working as professor at the Campus Law Centre. He also served on deputation as principal of Government Law College, Pondicherry and as a Secretary of the Bar Council of India Trust.
Heeding to the desire of the Bar and the Bench in 1986, NMN moved to Bangalore and went ahead with building a new-age law university in the country in the form of NLSIU in 1987. This was regarded as the most original and perhaps, uncertain experiment which he headed up for 12 years to much acclaim. NLSIU set a new standard in professional legal education at times when the Bar Council said ‘legal education system was facing a crisis of credibility in the country’.
NMN took on that challenge of building a new-age public educational institution that is by and large self-sustaining. He raised a diversity of resources, built a committed faculty, and inspired his colleagues and students to innovate in classroom teaching and learning. NLSIU went on to become the institute that pioneered the rigorous and integrated five-year BA-LLB programme in place of the earlier 3-year course which has become the template for new-age national law schools. The success of these experiments saw birth of least 21 such independent legal education institutions in the country.
The original intent of the integrated 5-year course which is now considerably diluted and mostly run on self-financing basis in many states, was to admit students by means of a competitive national-level entrance examination and attract those who would consciously choose the formal study of law. To ensure an intensive academic experience, NMN envisaged that the 5-year course would have a residential character and the performance of students would be assessed through frequent examinations and written assignments held over the course of an academic year.
A curriculum challenge was to strike a balance between study of law as a technique and a skill, and law as a field of academic study and NMN responded by himself designing the curricular and pedagogic processes at NLSIU. This school was the first in India to use the Harvard Law School’s Case study method, which later became the mainstream form of legal education in India through an energetic experimentation in teaching. It is this curricular design and approach of NLSIU has had a lasting imprint on the trajectory of legal education over last 32 years.
NMN practiced what he preached. In his 2012 writings, ‘the transformation of Indian Legal Education– a Blue Paper’ (Harvard Law School Programme on the Indian Legal Profession, 2012) he stresses “Everyone now realizes that unless the faculty position is improved, the future of legal education is bleak and students with financial capacities will migrate to other jurisdictions for their education.” Recognising the paucity of competent teachers and that bright law graduates do not join post-graduate studies in Indian law schools nor are they attracted to teaching and research positions NMN took upon him the challenge to build quality post-graduate and doctoral programmes in the new-age law universities.
On an invite from government of West Bengal, NMN set up the National University of Juridical Sciences (NUJS) Kolkata in 1998 where he served as its vice-chancellor from 1998 to 2003. Later, at the urging of the Supreme Court, NMN established a training centre for judges called the National Judicial Academy (NJA) in Bhopal in 2003, and presided as its founder director until retiring in 2006. It was at NJA where many senior judges received their first exposure to public interest litigation and human rights and environmental issues long before these became current coinage.
After his retirement NMN set up the educational charity, Menon Institute of Legal Advocacy Training (MILAT), and ran the M.K. Nambyar Academy for Continuing Legal Education (NACLE) which has been conducting continuing legal education sessions throughout the country. He had prepared detailed plans and raised sufficient finances with his fellow legal luminary, K K Venugopal, in 2002 for establishing a legal school in Kerala but unfortunately the MNN-Venugopal initiative fell by the wayside due to lacklustre interest of the state.
NMN served on the Law Commission and other bodies and committees connected with legal education. He was also the Member of the Committee on Criminal Justice Reform and the Committee on Restructuring of Higher Education in India. NMN authored several books on legal education, legal profession, legal aid, judicial training and administration of justice and conferred with Padma Shri in 2003 for outstanding public services.
NMN pioneered a new approach to law education which at once became the standard across the country. A book “Turning Point” published by Universal Law Publishers, Delhi (2010) is on the life and works of Prof. Menon. There is an annual Best Law Teacher Award of an instituted after Prof. NMN by the Society of Indian Law Firms to commemorate his services to the legal profession and legal education for more than half a century.
The very name and concept he coined, ‘Law School of India University’ was novel. Eminent legal doyen Adv. Fali Nariman worded this very nicely, saying ‘the concept of School University did not just pass on law education to students, but it is “the lawyers’ master” way of “transmitting civilisation” to generations’. India has lost a valuable transmitter in the form of Prof. NMN.
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