Born in 1935, Dr. N.R. Madhava Menon had his education (B.Sc. and B.L.) from Kerala University, Aligarh Muslim University (LL.M. and Ph.D.) and Punjab University (M.A.). He got enrolled as an Advocate in Kerala High Court in 1956 at the early age of 20. Dr. Menon left active legal practice and joined the faculty of Aligarh Muslim University in 1960 where he continued his teaching and research till 1965.
Joining Delhi University in 1965, he rose to become Professor and Head of the Campus Law Centre. During this period he served on deputation as Principal of Government Law College, Pondicherry and Secretary of the Bar Council of India Trust.
In 1986 on the invitation of the Bar Council of India, Dr. Menon moved to Bangalore to set up the National Law School of India University and to initiate a new model of legal education, the Five Year Integrated LL.B. programme. He served NLSIU as its Founding Vice-Chancellor for 12 years.The success of the Bangalore model persuaded the West Bengal Government to invite Prof. Menon to establish a similar law school in Kolkata. From 1998 to 2003, he served as the Founder Vice-Chancellor of the National University of Juridical Sciences from where the Supreme Court sought his services to set up the National Judicial Academy at Bhopal. Dr. Menon was the Founder Director of NJA till 2006 after which he took retirement from active employment.
On retirement, the Government of India appointed him as Member of the Commission on Centre-State Relations (2006-2010). He was also Chairman of the Indian Statistical Institute, Kolkata and of the Centre for Development Studies, Trivandrum. He chaired the Government of India Committee to draft a National Policy on Criminal Justice and the Committee on Equal Opportunity Commission. He was Member of the Committee on Criminal Justice Reform and the Committee on Restructuring of Higher Education in India and Member of the Law Commission of India.
Dr. Menon was decorated with several awards by Government and professional bodies. The International Bar Association honoured him with Living Legend of Law Award (1994), the Rotary Club with Vocational Excellence Award (1992), the Society of Indian Law Firms with the Best Law Teacher Award (2009), the ET-NOW Group with National Education Leadership Award (2013) and the Government of India with PADMASHREE, the highest civilian award for outstanding public services (2003). He was elected Chairman of Commonwealth Legal Education Association in 1997.
Prof. Menon is now holding the International Bar Association Chair on Continuing Legal Education at the National Law School, Bangalore and is involved in professional development training of lawyers and law teachers. He is the Chairman of the Menon Institute of Legal Advocacy Training (MILAT), an educational charity based in Trivandrum where he lives. Prof. Menon is also the Chancellor of Guru Ghasidas Central University, Chattisgarh and Member of Governing Boards of Centre for Development Studies, Trivandrum, Nirma University, Ahmedabad, Dr. Ambedkar University of Social Sciences, Delhi, NALSAR University of Law, Hyderabad, National Law Universities at Jodhpur and Cuttack.
Madhava Menon (MM): Though it was not my intention to be a professor in the beginning, once I started teaching, I began loving the profession and sought to become the one admired by students and liked by peers and colleagues. I received both in abundant measure during the 55 years of my academic career, which makes me wish to be born a teacher again, if I have another life in this beautiful world.
I left active teaching in 2006 and settled in my home at Thiruvananthapuram. My former students and friends wanted me to continue teaching and floated the Menon Institute of Legal Advocacy Training (MILAT) as an educational charity even before I retired from active service. The idea was to keep me in teaching so long as health permits. Designing and conducting continuing legal education programs for professional development of advocates and law teachers is what I do now on behalf of MILAT and the IBA. Chair professorship I hold in an honorary capacity at the National Law School of India at Bengaluru.
MM: Putting Indian legal education at par with the best institutions of its kind elsewhere in the world was my ambition as a law teacher. The first opportunity came when I went to Pondicherry (Puducherry) in 1973 to set up a law college in the Union Territory on deputation from Delhi University. It was a college run almost as a Government department with usual bureaucratic hurdles in administration and was affiliated to Madras University which at that time was too conservative to allow any innovation in academic matters. Yet, some reforms happened in teaching methods. Clinical methods were employed to teach skills and ethics which attracted attention of academia in the South.
Another opportunity to attempt reforms at the national level came when the Bar Council of India invited me to advise it on matters relating to legal education. I worked for three years as Secretary of the Trust created by the BCI during which, the idea of the Five Year Integrated LL.B. programme was conceived and popularised. BCI accepted it and asked Universities to adopt it. There were not many takers and those who came forward made a mess of it, ignoring the rationale for the integrated programme.
Perhaps I was destined to demonstrate how it has to be worked out in order to be professionally significant and intellectually challenging. The once in a life-time opportunity came when the BCI invited me in 1986 to implement the new scheme. Seldom does a teacher get such an opportunity to shape professional legal education with the backing of the profession and the blessing of the Government. Peers felt it impractical if not impossible. Colleagues advised caution and wanted me to wait for the idea to get accepted by the academia generally. BCI was, however, in a hurry and wanted me to raise the resources and develop the University as a self-financing institution. All that they wanted was to create a “Harvard of the East” befitting the Indian legal profession and acting as a pace-setter for future reforms in legal education! A tall order indeed at a time when law study was considered as the last resort by those who could not get into any other professional course.
Thanks to a set of colleagues who were prepared to work hard, make sacrifices and risk their own careers, the National Law School idea and the dream of integrated law study made a breakthrough in a short span of ten years. It is a long story, an arduous journey involving many hiccups and uncertain future based on experiments in goal setting, curriculum planning, alternative teaching methods, new integrated instructional materials and co-curricular activities, realistic performance assessment systems and increased social relevance of what we do in the name of “social context law study”. With a missionary zeal and full ownership of the experiments and innovations, we the founding members of the faculty gave our very best and the result was there for everyone to see and analyse. The International Review Committee (Prof. Marc Galanter from USA, Prof. William Twining from UK and Prof. Bandaranaike from Sri Lanka) appointed by the Visitor, the then Chief Justice of India, found the experiment a resounding success worthy of emulation by other law schools. All India Judicial Conference and the Committee on Subordinate Legislation of Indian Parliament recommended that every State in the country should have a law school similar to the National Law School of India University, Bangalore.
Dream fulfilled, I left Bangalore after two terms as the Director of NLSIU in 1997 to be invited by West Bengal Government to set up a similar University in Kolkata. Another five years at the National University of Juridical Sciences (NUJS) as its founding Vice-Chancellor, I thought I could retire for good and return to my native state of Kerala. But destiny had other plans and I had to move to Bhopal at the instance of the Supreme Court to set up the National Judicial Academy as its founding Director.
MM: I did not write the book “Turning Point”. It was done by Prof. Surya Prakash of the National Law Institute University, Bhopal who in a series of interviews with me during 2005-’07 gathered the information on my academic journey and wrote it as a biography, perhaps the first of its kind on a law teacher in India. Yes, it does record the adverse circumstances I passed through in childhood and the challenges I have had as a teacher at Aligarh, Delhi, Pondicherry, Bangalore, Kolkata and Bhopal. More importantly, it narrates the events and influences which shaped my life as a law teacher compelling to look at law and legal education differently from the rest.
MM: Unlike the general impression, Law is a difficult and complex discipline warranting full-time attention and continuing study and reflection. The more you learn of law in society, the more you realise how little you know and how engaging it can be. There is no other subject which demands all your intellectual capabilities in full measure. But the rewards are exciting and incomparable. Hard and sustained work with the discipline and humility of a saint can give lifelong satisfaction of having served the cause of justice in society which is, after all, the function of Law.
The five year integrated B.A., LL.B. (Hons) course gives a wholesome education preparing one for a variety of law-related jobs even outside the profession of law. It can be in journalism, civil service, politics, international relations and diplomacy, social work and law teaching and research. Even within legal practice, the profession provides a range of opportunities in litigation, alternative systems of dispute settlement, judicial and quasi-judicial positions, business planning and advice, corporate lawyering, government legal services, and legal process outsourcing work from other jurisdictions. One can change from one to the other depending on interests and attitudes.
Integrity and character are important for success in any profession; it is more so in law and is critical if your aim is to reach the top. It is not enough to act within the Code of Ethics; that is the minimum necessary for every lawyer. Every lawyer is being assessed not only by judges and colleagues but also by variety of actors of the system including litigants on a daily basis. Your reputation is an asset which has to be cultivated by your words and actions within the profession and outside. It will pay in the long run.
MM: On completing 50 years of teaching in 2009, the President of the Society of Indian Law Firms (SILF), Mr. Lalit Bhasin organiszed a grand felicitation function at which he announced that SILF had decided to institute an Annual Best Law Teacher Award in my name consisting of Rupees One Lakh, a plaque of honour, and a citation to a distinguished law teacher from the SAARC region selected by a jury headed by the former Chief Justice of India. That, they said, was to acknowledge the services given by Prof. Menon who made a decisive change in legal education influencing the quality of legal services and the course of professional development. SILF invited MILAT to assist them in the selection processes and in organising the event, bringing together the practising and academic wings of the profession for mutual benefit and interaction.
Since 2009, every year the Prof. N.R. Madhava Menon Best Law Teacher Award was conferred on four Indian and one Bangladeshi law teachers in gala events organized jointly by SILF and MILAT. The law teaching community, long neglected by Government and profession, got a boost with this gesture of the Society of Indian Law Firms. I am indebted to the Society and its leadership for the honour conferred on me which is equally significant as the Padma Award which the Government of India gave me earlier in 2003 for distinguished public services.
MM: This question requires a long answer and is beyond the scope of this interview. My association with the issues involved dates back to 1965 when I started a Students' Legal Services Clinic at the Campus Law Centre of Delhi University involving students in criminal proceedings, a subject which I was teaching at that time. A publication on Clinical Education written by me was released in 1968. Following it in 1973, the Government of India appointed me as a member of an Expert Committee on Legal Aid of which Justice V.R. Krishna Iyer was the Chairman. Since then, I found many ways to be involved in conceiving schemes and strategies for delivery of legal services to the poor, particularly involving the law students.
I think in a country where an overwhelming majority of people belong to the poorer classes, consisting of women, children, the disabled and the minorities, only a pro-active and dynamic legal aid programme can felicitate access to justice to the marginalised sections. The Krishna Iyer Committee Report (1973) titled “Processual Justice to People”, therefore sought to establish a radical scheme involving para-legals, civil society and academic legal community in the delivery of legal services. Even the Legal Services Authority Act, 1986 to some extent accommodated such an approach. Yet, in implementation, the scheme became court-centric depending on allotment of panel lawyers to those eligible for litigational aid and Lok Adalats for settlement without trial pending litigation. Law school based legal aid clinics are largely operating through voluntary efforts of a few law teachers and motivated students dispensing legal awareness and few para-legal services.It seems to me that the Legal Services Authority should be more broad-based keeping judges as principal participants but not the sole decision makers on delivery of services.
It is sad that even after six decades of freedom, the majority of Indian people do not have access to courts and they have to depend on Khap Panchayats for seeking justice. A large part of the country falling under Maoist insurgency is the result of denial of access to justice. The issue warrants priority attention of Central and State Governments if India is to remain united and succeed in democratic governance under rule of law. The issue is too big and complex to be left entirely to lawyers and judges. Conventional legal aid has little social relevance to a large part of India. Can legal aid ensure health, education, employment and equal treatment? That is to be the fundamental goal of legal aid for which there is need for restructuring the legal profession through amendments to the Advocates Act. Judicial reform is already under way through the National Mission (2012-’17) and let us hope it will yield results in the not-too-distant future. The Gram Nyayalaya Act should get priority in administration of justice. ADR should become the mainstream strategy for dispensing justice and litigation to be invoked only for complex cases for which the functioning of Bar Councils and Rules of Practice have to be changed.
I think even Supreme Court justices have recognised the writing on the wall and are responding to the rather desperate situation on the justice front. How else would one read the statement of the Chief Justice of India that all Courts including Supreme Court should work all 365 days of the year to clear backlog. It is to be welcomed. I hope the new Government at the Centre would extend necessary infrastructural and financial support to actualise the proposal of the CJI.
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