SC Stays BCI Notification; Ends Age Cap For LLB Courses
Coming straight to the nub of the matter, let me begin by first and foremost penning my utmost admiration for the latest landmark move of the Supreme Court on March 3 by which it ended the age barrier for entry into law courses by staying a notification issued by the Bar Council of India (BCI) setting a cap of 22 years and 45 years for admission into five-year and three-year LLB courses respectively. Speaking for myself, I very strongly believe that there should be no age limit for any study course whether it is LLB or LLM or any other professional course. Just recently a woman in Japan did PhD at the age of 106.
Truly speaking, a Bench of Supreme Court comprising Justices SA Bobde and L Nageswara Rao stayed the BCI notification of September 17, 2016 on a petition filed by a law aspirant Rishabh Duggal. There were several persons who stood disqualified on account of this age bar and questioned the need for introducing it at a time when no such restriction existed for past 50 to 60 years in the country. The Supreme Court on February 28 issued notice to the BCI on a petition filed by two law aspirants challenging the maximum age limit of 20 years for taking admission to the 5-year integrated law degree.
While craving for the exclusive indulgence of my esteemed readers, let me inform them that the Bench rightly asked BCI, “On one hand, you (BCI) promote legal education, on the other hand your Legal Education Committee prescribes age limit. Tell us, if somebody is 23 or 24 years, can he not apply? Advocate Ardhendumauli Kumar Prasad, appearing for BCI, sought to give clarification and explained that the stipulation of age limit was fixed by the Committee based on an expert panel report headed by Justice AL Narasimha Rao.
Truth be told, AK Prasad humbly submitted that the age-limit was not new and it had been introduced in 2008. He also said that the age-limit for admission to the three-year LLB course is 30 years, while it is 20 years for the five-year course. Kapil Sibal retorted by arguing that the BCI does not have jurisdiction under the Advocates Act to fix an age-limit. That power, he argued, lies with the Centre. Sibal minced just no words in making it amply clear by his convincing arguments that, “BCI can regulate us after we have entered the profession. Not before that. The fixing of age limit is the role of Ministry of HRD. So I don’t understand what jurisdiction they have to fix age-limit”.
For my esteemed readers exclusive indulgence, let me also inform them that the age cap was prescribed as a tentative measure for this academic year only even as BCI agreed to hold talks with all stakeholders. Eminent senior advocates Kapil Sibal, Sanjay Hegde and Advocate on Record Zoheb Hossain (all appeared pro bono) argued forcefully that Clause 28 of Legal Education Rules, 2008, which restored the maximum age limit of 20 years for taking admission to the five-year integrated law degree was arbitrary and unlawful. Sanjay Hegde submitted that the new stipulation violates the fundamental rights of aspiring law students under Articles 14, 19(1)(g) and 21 of the Constitution.
Be it noted, after hearing, a two-Judge Bench comprising Justice Dipak Misra and Justice Arun Mishra issued notice to the BCI, returnable in four weeks. Though the Bench has not stayed the operation of the rule, yet it gave liberty to the petitioners to mention the matters for interim relief, if necessary. The petitioners submitted that conflicting judgments were passed by different high courts in writ petitions challenging the validity of Clause-28 and, therefore, the interference of Supreme Court is necessary to ensure that there is certainty in the lives of the students and consistency and uniformity in the approach of the BCI in this matter.
To put things in perspective, the petitioners pointed out that the said Clause-28 was held to be ultra vires the provisions of the Advocates Act, 1961, by the High Court of Punjab and Haryana in Rajan Sharma v The Bar Council of India and the High Court of Bombay in Yasmin E Tavaria v Union of India, respectively. However, a conflicting view has been taken by the High Court of Madras in M. Santhosh Antony Vareed v The Registrar, Tamil Nadu Dr. Ambedkar Law University, Chennai, wherein the High Court of Madras upheld the upper age limit of 30 years for admission to the 3-year bachelor degree course in law.
Needless to say, the Bench of Supreme Court was convinced that such a cap should go and went on to stay the notification and all consequential acts taken in pursuance of the notification. When Prasad requested for an order to subject all admissions to the final outcome in this case, the Bench indicated that it was inclined to say otherwise that the pendency of these cases (before Apex Court) will not affect admissions made this year. The age limit for the entrance exam was fixed in line with Clause 28 of Schedule III, Rule 11 of the Rules of Legal Education, 2008 which imposes an age limit for entry into law courses. The Bench asked BCI to take into account all the issues raised by the petitioners and respond by next Tuesday.
Finally, let me now stop my pen by completely endorsing what advocate Gopal Shankaranarayanan who appeared for one of the affected students argued very convincingly. He rightly argued that globally, there is no age limit for pursuing legal education and wondered aloud what made India so different. There can be no denying or disputing it! Why debar a person from studying just because of his age? This is completely unacceptable!