Professor Homer Pithawalla, Senior Professor at Government Law College, Mumbai, India, discusses the patterns of legal education and profession in India in an interview with Vishwajeet Deshmukh...
Professor Homer D. Pithawalla is a practising advocate of the Supreme Court of India and Bombay High Court as well as a solicitor of Bombay High Court, Supreme Court of England and Wales and Supreme Court of Hong Kong. He is the senior-most Professor of Law at the Government Law College, Mumbai, where he has been associated for the last 5 decades. He is recognized as one of India’s leading experts on corporate law and competition law. Professor Pithawalla has lectured at Harvard Law School, the Law School at La Sorbonne (Paris, France), the University of Cambridge, the International Bar Association, the Institute of Chartered Accountants and the Institute of Chartered Secretaries.
1. Witnessing the transition of the law through almost half a century and seeing the law evolve to what it is today, has this transition moved in a direction expected by you?
When I was a law student more than half a century ago, I was disappointed with three things: firstly, our professors did not meet our expectations; secondly, the extent of judicial corruption in lower courts was disturbing; and lastly, the delay in litigation and pendency of suits was worrisome. It was then that we realised that soon we would be lawyers and we would be able to tackle these issues, since we had already identified them. More than fifty years have lapsed, but, systematic issues still persist in India. As far as advances in legal education and curriculum are concerned, advancement is visible through new statutes and legislation, competition law being one of the examples. In my view, India has some of the best laws, but it is the implementation of the laws which is a problem in the country. Some examples of the same would be the offence of spitting on the streets, prohibition in Mumbai and sale of alcohol in the city.
Judicial Activism in India, when viewed with the development of fundamental rights under the Indian Constitution, has changed how India is perceived. The role of the judiciary in enforcing the law in its letter and spirit is essential. The Supreme Court of India has expanded the scope of fundamental rights to an enormous extent, and it now includes the right to a healthy life, the right to a healthy environment, the right to possess a passport, the right to protect the monuments of our heritage, the right not to be handcuffed unless absolutely necessary and many facets of everyday life. We must remember the role played by judicial activists, especially Mr. M.C. Mehta, who was an environmental activist who filed dozens of cases, including some against the factories whose pollution was affecting the River Ganges and the monumental Taj Mahal marble. The Supreme Court of India has encouraged “Public Interest Litigation” for the good of the public at large.
2. You have been associated with the oldest law school in India, the Government Law College, Mumbai, for over five decades. How has the transition in legal academia changed over the course of time?
When I talk about the legal education in India, I am not referring to the National Law University system, since they possess a great amount of autonomy in their decisions and thus, are not necessarily bound by any strict mandates either in function or curriculum. When it comes to institutes such as Government Law College, Mumbai, which is the oldest law school, not only in India but in Asia, where I have taught and even studied, there has not been a major transition as hoped and anticipated by me. The reason is that the college does not have any liberty to choose the curriculum for its students, charge tuition or even decide the pay of professors. A major reason for such restrictions comes from several bodies which control the institute and its administration. In the case of Government Law College, Mumbai, it is the Bar Council of India, the University of Mumbai and the Government of Maharashtra. The curriculum needs flexibility to include the latest laws which are affecting today’s world. I also feel that legal ethics needs to be imbibed into students since they would be the torch-bearers of tomorrow.
During my tenure at the law school, I have taught Contract Laws and I try to imbibe the essence of the subject with practical illustrations and make it possible for students, when they go to Courts, to apply their knowledge. Just last year, I got a call from one of my ex-students. He was one of the bright students and I remembered him distinctly. He mentioned that he was able to secure an order from the Court where the Judge asked for an illustration to substantiate his argument under a particular aspect of Contract Law. He told me that he was able to recollect one of my lectures, give an illustration which I had used in the class and the judge was impressed.
3.The forum of education has switched modes and turned majorly online due to the COVID-19 pandemic. What are the hurdles faced by you as a Professor? Do you think that your students may also be facing similar hurdles? In your opinion, how does the online educational forum affect the inclusive nature of a classroom? Does it increase the predominant gap between the students – and between the students and the Professor?
Online is online, and it loses the personal touch which I truly embrace. It is one thing to do a Zoom Call, another to meet in person. These online classes might go on for a while, but there is no substitute for a personal interaction between a student and his professor. Because of the pandemic, internet connection has become a major issue, and many of my students have gone back to their home towns, places with weak connectivity. Thus, in a class which is conducted on-line, when a student is trying to make a point and the internet snaps, the connection stops and this gap increases. Most of my students prefer to keep their video cameras off in order to attain a better connection. I like to see my students’ expressions and that makes it even more enjoyable when a twisted point of law is brought ahead. But, online classes have taken this joy away to a great extent. Students with good connections are able to communicate, others are not, and the gap increases.
The online exams have also made the system even more unfathomable, as supervision in these exams is almost non-existent. Thus, instances of cheating in online exams have increased, with the system being unable to comprehend the students’ actions. The situation is worrisome leading to deterioration in the standard of legal education. This mode is likely to affect the standard of education in the future.
4. We have noticed that you do not take the attendance of students who flock to your class – and your classroom often “overflows”. On the other hand, you have always said that students should regularly attend law classes. Don’t you think that there is some contradiction in terms of this?
I believe that each and every student who attends my class should come for the knowledge of the subject, and I am not interested in forcefully pushing a student to attend my class. I believe the motivation to attend and understand law should come from oneself. I have worked with several Deans of Government Law College, Mumbai, and the question of roll call or attendance (in India) has been brought up time and again. I strongly believe a student must feel like attending the class by himself/herself. It is a simple concept of pulling a student to the class rather than pushing him/her to the class.
I remember visiting Georgetown University Law Centre where I met one of my students who was pursuing an LLM. He told me that the subject of Torts was taught by three different professors independently and students had the autonomy to attend any of the professor’s lectures. This is an inherent difference is teaching pedagogy and methodology; students have the autonomy to choose what they wish to. I really wonder if we can bring this system to India, as it would create a wholesome change in legal learning.
5. You had been asked by the Royal Government of Bhutan to draft their contract legislation. How was this experience to draft such new and important legislation for that nation?
It was my first such experience. I received a call one fine morning from an ex-student of Government Law College, Mumbai, who was also a Bhutanese national. The Royal Government of Bhutan sponsors its students to study law at Government Law College, Mumbai. The ex-student who called me had become the Deputy Attorney General for Bhutan, working closely with the Government, and he wanted to establish a collaborative effort. Next week, they flew to Mumbai from Bhutan and met me. They wanted me to draft a contract legislation for their nation, as none existed in their country. I was handed over certain documents to prepare the draft. I must admit that I was initially hesitant to take up this assignment, since even a single mistake in the new legislation could affect several thousands of citizens. However, when I consulted my family members, friends and colleagues, they encouraged me to accept this “honor”.
I was flown to Bhutan and I sat in meeting with businessmen, since Bhutan had very few practising lawyers then. The experience was very wholesome: meeting businessmen and traders. Another aspect of the same was once the legislation was drafted, it took a lot of time to translate the document in Bhutanese, since there were words which did not even exist in their dictionary for technical legal terms. I have always considered this as a privilege – and also an honor – bestowed upon me by the Royal Government of Bhutan.
6. It is well-known that law Professors are poorly paid. Why then have you continued in this profession for such a long time?
I have never taught for any financial gain, but for the satisfaction I get. There was a time when I toyed with the idea of becoming a full-time professor of the law school, but, when I found out that I would only be paid Rs. 16,000 per month (at that time), I dropped the idea. Thus, I chose to be a part-time Professor which would enable me to teach and practise law simultaneously. Teaching gives me satisfaction as I consider that to be a service to my students. A decent lawyer would make more than a month’s salary in less than a week. Part-time professors are paid a paltry sum and those who are in this profession part-time are doing it out of love for teaching and the satisfaction that follows. Incidentally, all these amounts are also taxable. These low remunerations are discouraging good students to take up academia in India.
7. What is the satisfaction of being in academia and closer to future lawyers?
It is not the satisfaction of financial gain that drives me, but the happiness of seeing my students going ahead and seeing my students become High Court and Supreme Court judges. I was so happy when one student became the Chief Justice of India (Late Justice Sarosh Homi Kapadia). I often ask myself, “What is teaching?”. It is true that all good students do not make good professors, and the act of teaching is beyond academia. The answer I have found through my experience is that teaching is the art of making things simple and explaining things in the simplest possible way.
8. What shall be your vision for legal education and law students in a post-COVID world?
The pandemic has done a lot of harm in many ways; students have developed anxiety and the digital divide is increasing. Students’ health, especially mental health on account of anxiety and depression, is concerning. A lot of research has confirmed the impact of the pandemic even on the physical health of students. I am sure we will be back to normalcy, but we will have to take a few steps back before we move ahead. We need to undo a few things before we start with the new normal. This pandemic has made us value the in-person experience more than ever. We hope to enter a new normal with a new appreciation for tomorrow.
This interview was conducted and prepared for the JURIST Commentary by Vishwajeet Deshmukh.
Vishwajeet Deshmukh is the Multimedia Director and Assistant Editor for JURIST Commentary.
Suggested Citation: Homer Pithawalla, In Conversation with Professor Homer Pithawalla: Legal Education and Profession In India, JURIST – Academic Commentary, June 10, 2021, https://www.jurist.org/commentary/2021/06/homer-pithawalla-india-interview/.
This article was prepared for publication by Vishwajeet Deshmukh. Please direct any questions or comments to her at firstname.lastname@example.org
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