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Jessup national rounds: low judging standards or high stress? Winners and Surana speak out

Mooting Premier League 2010-11 - MPL2
Mooting Premier League 2010-11 - MPL2

Readers and mooters went into tailspin last week over a perceived problem in the quality of judging at Jessup national rounds, posting over 80 comments on this apparently perennial issue. Legally India investigates.

Every year the Indian national selections for the Philip C. Jessup International Law Moot are conducted by Surana & Surana International Attorneys in partnership with different law schools in the country.

Last month teams from NLU Delhi and NUJS Kolkata qualified in North India; ILS Pune and Nalsar Hyderabad made it in South India.

Legally India talks to the winners about their experiences of the competition and the judging quality.

Losing face at high stakes?

“There are the 'established' law schools and certain irrevocable perceptions about their caliber and potential,” muses Akshay B.D., a third-year mooter from NLU Delhi who was part of the winning Jessup North team. “You see how nobody is surprised when an NLS or a Nalsar makes it to the finals of a moot but you see instantly hushed talk about low quality when a not-so-established school makes it.”

“While such perceptions are inevitable, I believe that they cannot be used to the point of judging the results of each moot in the light of such perceptions (or even expectations),” continues the winner from NLU Delhi, which is a law schools so young it yet has to see its first batch graduate. “I understand that there is a degree of responsibility that comes with being part of an established university, and the students more often than not carry such responsibility quite zealously by working hard on the moots. But, that's about as far as it can be taken. Beyond that, we must allow results to speak for themselves.”

“At the very outset, I should clarify that we lost to NLU Delhi in the finals because they were better than us in that court and conspiracy theories to the contrary are unfounded,” says Deepak Raju, who is an outspoken, veteran NUJS mooter having participated in as many as six large moots in the past. “When teams lose and blame it on judging, it is to be taken with a pinch of salt.”

“It is a natural defense for any team to impulsively blame the system or anything other than themselves for their loss,” chimes in Akshay. “This is something we all resort to at times, having worked so hard on a moot - our team, for instance has worked for almost 12 hours for one month before the moot and for about eight hours a day for three months.

“With the stakes being so high and the competition being cut-throat, it is but natural for teams to resort to blaming anything but themselves. It is a loss of faith to give in so much only to know you are not getting anything out of it. This is the Jessup!”

Surana & Surana’s head of academic initiatives S Ravichandran posits a similar analysis. “Too much is at stake and there’s a lot of pressure on the students nowadays - I don’t blame them. If they are last in the first round, they lose face amongst their peer group.”

”Every time when a team loses they will come and make a complaint,” he adds. “Now at Jessup too much is at stake, they pay money, for three months they prepare and if their draw in the initial rounds is with too strong team, they can be out.”

“I think there is an element of luck that is unavoidable,” agrees NLU Delhi’s Akshay. “If you are paired up against the best team in the competition in the first round, you are obviously at a loss even if you are the second best team since you have one loss and you end up not advancing.”

But the same line of argument can also be used to make the opposite point. Aditya Singh, a veteran Nalsar Mooter who lost to ILS in the finals of Surana South, says that he is aware of the dissatisfaction with the judging standards at the Jessup South rounds this year, and hopes that the criticism will trigger some reform.

“Indian law students treat mooting as an extremely serious academic exercise and put in a lot of effort, sacrificing on a range of other things. It can therefore get frustrating when you lose out because of a bad decision,” argues Singh.

Celebrity factor

NLU Delhi’s Akshay says that at this year’s Jessup North tournament the judging was fantastic. “I have participated in only one other moot - DM Harish - before this, so I may be unable to comment on the relative quality of judging. However, I can assure you that, objectively, some of the smartest lawyers from Delhi and around were flown in just to judge the rounds. Most of them were ex-mooters and international law professors.”

Nevertheless, an oft-repeated charge is that not all judges are international law experts and even the best and most well-rehearsed arguments can therefore fall on deaf ears.

NUJS’ Raju says: “It is true that the tendency of getting judges or lawyers from domestic courts (including the High Courts and the Supreme Court) to judge moots in international law does compromise the quality of the mooting experience.

“While they are eminent persons and best possible judges for a domestic law moot, that is not the case for an international law moot, given the difference in the way the two legal frameworks function. A solution may be mandating that the national round of an international moot be judged only by those who have participated in that international moot or similar moots in the past. While this may exclude celebrity judges, quality will be assured.”

NLU Delhi’s Akshay accepts that a judge may not exactly know the intricacies of the law being discussed, which could be on a “really random” topic such as on the OECD Anti-Corruption Convention but adds that it is “both unrealistic and undesirable to expect them to know it”.

He maintains that the art of mooting lies in explaining the nuanced concepts of law and at the same time establishing your case. “I think teams often miss out the first part because of which they may lose the attention of the judge even if their arguments are brilliant. The judges may not exactly appreciate such nuances if the base line of argument is not explained to them comprehensively.”

“Beyond a point, it is about convincing the judge irrespective of how much he knows,” he argues. “I think that's what mooting is all about.”

ILS’s winning Jessup South mooter Madhupreetha agrees, emphasising that an integral part of advocacy is being able to convince and deliver what the judge needs. “Legal research and points of law have to be delivered gauging the judges’ expectations.”

“We used to get feedback that said judging is bad but getting judges is really difficult,” concedes Ravichandran, adding that there are very few practicing lawyers or sitting judges in India who have international law experience. He says that ILSA always refers some names as judges, whom he invites, additionally also inviting everyone else with international law experience, of whom “90 per cent are ex-Jessupers”.

However, says Ravichandran, for the finals he has to leave it to the hosting institution to nominate a few of their own judges, which often have less international law expertise. “Some of the institutions want to bring in Supreme Court judges and we have to bring them. But two people are [always] there who know international law,” he argues.

Bad apples?

Raju notes that it would be unfair to point out a few instances of sub-optimal judging and ignore the overall quality of it, adding that a “huge majority” of judges at the Jessup North rounds were very good and many kept questioning mooters every five minutes to create the impression of an active and knowledgeable bench. “It is commendable that RMLNLU Lucknow and Surana have overcome the limitations of a nascent law school and a non-metro city to put together such a wonderful show,” he says.

ILS’ Madhupreetha also notes that absolute perfect is unrealistic. “Perfect judging at all rounds is not possible,” she says. “The South rounds were well organised and transparency has been duly reflected as the score sheets were put up promptly after the rounds”.

Nalsar’s Singh suggests that going forward, it would be imperative to involve former mooters in the organisation of national rounds of international moots. “Indian students have always excelled in international moots and a lot of them are now working in India. My hope is that we’ll see the actively involvement of these individuals in judging moots in the near future.”

Ravichandran accepts that nothing is perfect but he maintains that all the moots are organized transparently.

And while he says that he is already in touch with all the top authorities on international law who could possibly judge moots, he adds is always open to suggestions and possibilities for improvement. “Ask students to get me a list [of judges who know international law] - I will contact them and we will send invites.”

And ultimately the proof is in the pudding, according to Ravichandran. “Time and again we have proved all the teams we have selected reached the quarters or second or third round at Jessup. The selection process is [therefore] correct. One team out of luck or a good draw maybe - earlier it has happened, they had a good draw of a medium level team, so they went to Jessup and they were unable to fare well there, they lost in the second round itself. But in the last four or five years, our teams have got respect even among US teams, so they’re doing excellently.”

Check back later this week for the full interviews with the mooters who will represent Indian colleges at Jessup this year.

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