Time to look beyond books
GIVEN the intensely formal approach of legal education in Bangladesh, it is often difficult, and in some cases unimaginable, that how much we deprive our students from the practical knowledge of legal practice. Clinical legal education has been a large movement across the legal academic globe, and it is indeed one of the idiosyncrasies of Bangladesh that we failed to develop clinical practice despite having a few handful professors with extensive clinical background.
In my human rights advocacy seminar at Harvard Law School, we study various approaches and theories of promoting and protecting human rights. A crucial aspect of this course consists of engaging in practice by transcending the boundaries of text books. As part of the seminar, the students have to participate in a fact finding simulation. The students are given a fictitious case of alleges human rights abuses in a fictitious country, and their job is to conduct interviews with potential violators and victims to retrieve as much fact as possible.
It is not the interviewing that makes the simulation so intense. It is the whole set-up and preparation. We had to cover huge amounts of readings on interviewing techniques, attitudes and mistakes, prepared a trip plan to the fictitious country, decided how to ensure our security in case someone attacked us, and what type of information shall we find. Doing this, you learn that you cannot “assume” facts. Reading the fact sheet you think the tea garden management is abusive. But during interview you find out everybody is talking about how the labour union abducted the branch manager last week and he is still missing. So you learn your crucial lesson in human rights practice in an embarrassing way: you never know if your 'assumed' victim can actually be a violator!
You are provided with email addresses to contact potential interviewees. You pick interviewees you believe best fits your purpose and find out he is out of town and cannot give you an appointment. You are shocked. Was not the Law school supposed to make the process work smoothly? This person is my classmate, how can he be out of town? But he is not your classmate anymore! You must think he is really the businessman you called who is a very busy person. You learn your first lesson in human rights interview: the circumstances are always difficult, and it is not easy to find out the truth.
Then the day for role play comes. You reach the classroom that is supposed to be the interview venue, and you find it is secured with a yellow crime scene ribbon. You cannot enter. You have no idea where your witness is! You rush to reschedule the interview, to find that the witness is busy with her sick son and is disgusted by your presence. This witness is your clinical instructor: you meet her every week. But the voice, the anger, the rudeness she displays: you never saw that. You end the interview without getting any information you needed.
Actually, the whole set up is a very professional preparation. The victims, perpetrators and witnesses are all law students and teachers in your school. But they are given specific facts of the story you do not know. They have dialogues, they have special attitudes, gestures, postures, remarks to catch you off guard. They are stakeholders, and they are traumatised: so they are doubtful about our activities and hide information. If you can't get the information, you have failed as a human rights fact finder. As army officers, your classmates refuse to give interviews because you didn't have your passport in your bag! Seriously? I need to bring my passport for a mere role play? You are embarrassed: you thought that since simulation is meant for developing your skills, the role players will assist you to execute your plan. But no! it's as if you really are in the army camp! Then one of your teammates is called to the other room and 15 minutes later you are informed he has left, and the rest of the day you cannot find your teammate in the entire law school. He has been disappeared by the army!
The level of professionalism is astonishing. And you wonder, why does is have to be so serious. It's JUST an exercise! But hey, this is what actually happens when people from Ain o Salish Kendro, BRAC, BLAST, MJF are in the fields. These are the exact hurdles they face. By the end of simulation, you are extremely annoyed, but also happy to taste the surprises of novelty.
This is the level of preparation that builds up confidence in a student. He gets to know the world he will deal with. I think about the police officers in my country: how many of them have any idea before they go to their first investigation assignment? How many lawyers know how to retrieve necessary facts from his clients? Does the new NGO officer really know how she can gain the trust of the village woman sitting in front of her?
The questions are numerous. The answer is one: we have to rethink our boring legal education, and the commitment we have as teachers. It is time we took our students out of their books, and into the world.
The writer is Post- Graduate Student at Harvard Law School.