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Sharing personal experiences and stories of higher education and/or community engagement”

by Basavanagouda Patil & Ipshita Bhuwania

This is the first of the series of articles focusing on university civic engagements, particularly with a focus on the Indian sub-continent. The authors are part of the 2014 MacJannet Prize winning program, “The Legal Services Clinic” of National Law School of India University, Bangalore. Basavanagouda Patil is also one of this year’s Talloires Network Student AmbassadorsThis piece focuses on the experience of the authors and their view on justice education, and the role of law universities in achieving access-to-justice initiatives. The subsequent articles from this series will explore important local issues or debates around university-community engagement, and finally the strategies and visions for higher education, as related to the civic roles and social responsibilities of law universities.

As students of law who are often buried by tomes of legal commentaries, we often choose to remain oblivious to a crucial fact: our academic endeavors are also meant to aid those who are vulnerable to the failures of the system and face social inequity as a result of non-access to the legal resources. The very foundation of legal education collapses if the fundamentals of “Access to Justice” and “Access to Legal Institutions” are  vested in the exclusive domain of those who are able to afford the billable hours, and able to “access” the high fortress walls of justice.

Justice Education, therefore becomes a modus operandi through which the objectives of civic engagement from the legal community can be realized.  In pursuance, the National Law School of India (NLS) began experimenting with its civic engagement roles by inaugurating the Legal Services Clinic (“the Clinic”), one of the most prestigious student-run committees of NLS. The Clinic operates with the objectives of spreading legal awareness among the masses, and realizing the foundation upon which the University was built: “Access to Justice.” This remains a crucial objective since an understanding and knowledge of the law and the judiciary remains a utopian dream for the underprivileged, leaving many defenseless in their daily struggles against an unjust society, corporations and the state itself. Hence, to make law comprehensible to the common man, the clinic promotes easy access to law and legal text through visual media – by skits and street plays in the vernacular language. It also encompasses a duty to give-back to the society by generating primary legal resources which can be utilised by those in need. These exercises impart a sense of what the law is and the various situations it can be used in, and mostly, the power to enforce their rights, which would otherwise be impossible without university civic engagement.

The Clinic focuses on issues which have universal applicability: domestic violence, dowry issues (the marriage payments that create unique problem in the Indian context), consumer rights, right to education, and the right to information, amongst others.

Another goal of our work at the Clinic is to provide legal aid to those sections of the society who are unable to access it. People facing legal issues visit the clinic to consult the paralegals. The Clinic engages in collection of facts, assists the client with documentation and evidence, and generally advises the client on the most suitable course of action. However, being students, we are unable to directly represent the clients in court. Thus, the Clinic is assisted by a dedicated team of pro bono lawyers.

Besides these, the clinic has initiated various other community-oriented projects. It has taken on the wrath of corporates by filing several social interest litigations and consumer complaints on matters of public interest. With a strong interest in juvenile justice law, the Clinic has been a part of Juvenile Justice Board sittings, and has assisted them on deciding matters. To aid prisoners on trial, the Clinic initiated a project to procure bail and legal advice for them with the assistance of criminal law practitioners. However, our focus on the wider society does not mean we are forgetful of our immediate community. Some activities which are very close home to us include getting the children of labourers on campus to attend a local school and conducting a financial literacy program for the staff in our college.

Yet another noteworthy project the Clinic has been involved with is IDIA (Increasing Diversity by Increasing Access). This nationwide organization aims to give access to higher education. It endeavors to bring this about by aiding students from underprivileged backgrounds in preparing for the entrance exam for law colleges in India (CLAT-Common Law Entrance Exam). Not only does it marshall resources (preparatory material, mock tests etc.), it also engages law students in the teaching process.