The Bar Council of India (BCI) has introduced an interim measure for the Common Law Admission Test (CLAT) 2017 and all other LLB exams, increasing the upper age limit for law aspirants from 20 to 22 years for Five Year Integrated law programmes and from 30 years to 45 years for Three Year LLB programmes. The resolution governing this decision was passed in the BCI General Body meeting held in Kolkata on Wednesday, March 1.
The Supreme Court, which has been hearing a case filed by various petitioners challenging the upper age limit for CLAT and other LLB courses, had earlier acceded to the BCI’s request to allow it time until March 3 to come to a decision regarding the age limit. In the hearing which took place on February 28, the two member bench comprising Justices SA Bobde and L Nageswara Rao had asked the BCI counsel what the urgency was in introducing the age limit from this academic year. “Is it going to produce monsters? You will produce only lawyers,” the Bench was quoted as saying. While adjourning the hearing for March 3 as per the BCI’s plea, the Court also directed the BCI to “take a good decision...take such a decision so that no one should come to court.”
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The story so far
The LLB age limit criteria has followed a controversial trajectory ever since its introduction by the BCI in 2008. The maximum age limit of 20 years and 22 years for general category and reserved category students respectively for admissions to Five Year Integrated LLB courses and 30 years and 35 years respectively for admissions to Three Year LLB courses was made uniformly applicable to all law programmes offered by state law colleges and Universities across the country by BCI through Clause 28, Schedule III, Rule 11 of the Rules of Legal Education Rules formulated in 2008. The rule was subsequently challenged and revoked as per the orders passed by the Punjab and Haryana High Court, Bombay High Court and the Rajasthan High Court in subsequent years. The BCI had also formed a committee in 2013 to look into the issue, which concluded that introducing such a rule was not only beyond the powers of the BCI but also in violation of Article 14 of the Constitution, resulting in a temporary withdrawal of the age limit.
In 2015 however, the Madurai Bench of the Madras High Court ordered that the withdrawal of age limit by the BCI was in contravention of the existing amendment rules of the Advocates Act, 1961. This ruling was upheld the same year by a two member bench of the Supreme Court, comprising the current Chief Justice of India JS Khehar and Justice Rohinton Fali Nariman, meaning that Clause 28 was once again in force. This led to the BCI issuing a circular to Vice Chancellors and Registrars of all law colleges and Universities in September 2016, stating that Clause 28, and in effect the age limit cap, stood restored for all law exams. In November 2016, the Core Committee of CLAT issued its notification restoring the upper age limit for CLAT 2017, to be organized by Chanakya National Law University (CNLU), Patna, on May 14, 2017.
Immediately after the issue of the new circular in November, noted advocate Sushmita Mukherji had filed a case in the Allahabad High Court on behalf of 70 law aspirants challenging the validity of Clause 28. A separate case challenging upper age limit specifically with regard to the Common Entrance Test for Law in Maharashtra, had already been filed against the BCI in the Bombay High Court in September 2016. Another case, regarding age limit in CLAT, was filed with the Rajasthan High Court in February 2017.
Most importantly, and unsurprisingly given the conflicting views and conflicting interim orders passed by different High Courts over the years, two writ petitions were filed with the Supreme Court of India in January 2017. The first petition was filed by two aspiring legal professionals, an electrical and electronics engineering student, Rishabh Duggal, and a commerce student, Rishabh Arora. The second petition, which also saw former Union Law Minister Kapil Sibal appear pro bono on behalf of the petitioner, was filed by an IDIA (Increasing Diversity by Increasing Access) scholar orphaned since birth, Michael Sam, who had faced many hardships in life which prevented him from applying for CLAT at a younger age, and who, according to his Counsel, had been preparing hard for the exam over the last many months before this new rule left him “visibly shattered”.
The main contention raised by the petitions filed in the Supreme Court was that Clause 28, which introduced the upper age limit for CLAT 2017, was a “...blatant violation of the fundamental right to equality before the law guaranteed under Article 14, the freedom to carry on any profession, trade, occupation or business, guaranteed under Article 19(1)(g) of the Constitution of India respectively as well as the right to live with human dignity and to pursue a livelihood of one’s choice...the right to life and personal liberty under Article 21 of the Constitution...and is therefore arbitrary, unlawful and unconstitutional…,” thereby deserving to be struck down.
Observations by the High Courts
The Allahabad High Court, in response to Sushmita Mukherji’s petition, issued an interim order on February 9, 2017, directing CNLU to allow all 70 petitioners who were above the age of 20 to appear for the exam in May. Advocate Mukherji had told Careers360 that the two member Bench comprising Chief Justice Dilip B Bhosale and Justice Yashwant Varma reassured her that “her petitioners were safe” and CNLU would “allow the petitioners to fill up the forms and also participate in the examination”. The Bench however had also clarified that the matter was also pending in the Supreme Court and the order would only be applicable “...subject to further orders that will be passed...by the Supreme Court in the aforementioned writ petitions”.
On January 7, 2017, the Bombay High Court’s two member Bench comprising Chief Justice Manjula Chellur and Justice GS Kulkarni passed its order in favour of the petitioner Sandeep Kedia, which restrained authorities of the state law colleges of Maharashtra from cancelling the provisional admissions granted to students above the age limit prescribed by Clause 28 for the 2016-17 academic session. Countering the argument presented by the BCI against providing admissions to older students, Chief Justice Chellur remarked, "There are so many people who want to study law, to understand law and to better excel at their jobs and not necessarily practice. Why should they be deprived of studying law?” On January 19, 2017, the BCI filed its counter-affidavit in the challenge to Clause 28 wherein it stated that the clause was under review of a sub-committee of the BCI’s Legal Education Committee and the BCI was waiting for the committee report to be submitted before proceeding further. On February 3, the Bombay High Court continued with its previously issued order and once again restricted authorities from cancelling admissions of over-age students.
On February 16, 2017, a Circuit Bench of the Rajasthan High Court in Jaipur issued notices to the BCI and CNLU to report at the Court within six weeks with regard to the age limit rule. Justice Mohammed Rafiq, while passing his order granting interim relief to the petitioner Anmol Sharma and others to apply and participate for CLAT 2017, stated, “...the respondents shall provisionally allow the petitioner to fill up the examination form and also participate in the examination”. The order would stand until any further orders were passed by the Supreme Court.
Observations by the Supreme Court
The Supreme Court bench of Justices Dipak Misra and R Banumathi granted the first hearing to the petitions filed by Rishabh Duggal and Rishabh Arora on February 6, with Michael Sam impleading himself in the same. With Justice Misra recusing himself, the case was heard by the two member Bench of Justices Bobde and Nageswara Rao on February 20. Justice Bobde, while asking the BCI to reconsider the age limit rule, stated, “They (the petitioners) are consumers and you are providers of legal education, Why can’t you re-consider the issue and fix a reasonable age limit...let’s hear it next Tuesday?”, thereby finally adjourning the hearing to February 28.
With the BCI expected to present the recommendations of its Legal Education Committee before the Supreme Court on March 3, it is expected that the apex court’s final decision on the matter will bring to an end months of confusion and inconvenience to CLAT aspirants. Given that the last date for CLAT applications is March 31, 2017, the recommendations on increasing age cap are interim in nature and will apply for the 2017 year only. However, a final decision on the matter will be taken in consultation with all universities after the Supreme Court verdict is received. “We have to inform the Supreme Court on Friday about our decision. This is an interim measure as the deadline for submission of application is March 31 and the academic session will start (soon). The final decision will be taken by the Legal Education Commitee after consultation with the stakeholders,” the BCI Chairman, Manan Kumar Mishra was quoted saying.
Remove age cap altogether!
Seeing the BCI finally relent after months of legal battles and increase the CLAT age cap may come as a relief to some, but it hasn’t left everyone satisfied. With numerous law aspirants being above the newly recommended age limits as well, the petitioners remain frustrated as to why the BCI is unwilling to remove age caps altogether. Speaking to Careers360, Advocate Sushmita Mukherji said, “Our demands aren’t for increasing the age cap, rather they are to remove it altogether. We hope the Supreme Court orders the BCI to remove age limits for CLAT completely rather than allowing the introduction of this minor age limit increase.”
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