Rishabh Duggal v Bar Council of India: An End to the Age Limit Conundrum?

By Arifa Khan, Post Graduate College of Law, Osmania University, Hyderabad.

The Bar Council of India issued a Circular which fixes the age limit to 20 years and 45 years for 5 and 3 years Law Degree courses. The writ petition in Rishabh Duggal v. Bar Council of India was filed under Article 32 of the Constitution of India, against the said Circular No. 6 that restored Clause 28 by the Bar Council of India (BCI) which provides for a maximum age limit of 20 years and 45 years for taking admission into the 5 and 3 years Law degree course respectively. The said clause had been withdrawn by the BCI vide an earlier Resolution No. 231 in the Official Gazette; however, it was restored by Circular No. 6.

Advocate Hossain, assisted by Advocate Adeeba Mujahid, was arguing on behalf of a 21-year-old Electrical and Electronics Bachelor’s student Rishabh Duggal and Commerce student Rishabh Arora to both be allowed to apply to take a degree in Law. Duggal had already joined a tutorial programme to help him prepare for entrance tests, and forewent applying to any other jobs, and Arora, who turned 21 in January 2017, left the second year of his commerce degree to pursue his “dream of joining the legal profession”. Due to the operation of the circular, both the petitioners, despite being qualified to appear for the common entrance tests conducted for admission into law courses, have become ineligible for appearing in the said exams.

The petition argues that the Bar Council’s new rule has violated the Fundamental Rights of the Petitioners and several other similarly situated students who are being deprived of an opportunity to pursue their passion and a profession of their own choice merely because they have crossed the maximum prescribed age of 20 years for admission in Law School. No reasonable explanation has been given by the BCI for imposing restriction on the age for admission of aspiring students who want to pursue Law. The said clause is 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 which have been read into the right to life and personal liberty under Article 21 of the Constitution. The said clause is clearly arbitrary, unlawful and unconstitutional.

In a similar move where fundamental rights guaranteed under Article 14, 19(1)(g) and 21 of the Constitution were violated, barring the persons who have completed 45 years of age from enrolling as an Advocate under the Advocates Act. The Rule 9 of Rule of Legal Education, 2008 was challenged before the Supreme Court in the case of “India Council of Legal Aid & Advice & Ors. V. Bar Council of India & Anr”, wherein it was struck down as ultra vires the Advocates Act and violative of Article 14. Introduction of a rule unreasonably restricting the admission to the law courses is harsher and violates the rights of aspiring law students. Also, in the case of “V. Sudeer v. Bar Council of India” ,the Bar Council of India Training Rules, 1995 as amended by the Resolution of the BCI relating to training to entrants of legal profession were struck down by this Hon’ble Court as ultra vires the provisions of the Advocates Act.

Moreover, in a number of cases, the High Courts have allowed the students who have crossed the maximum prescribed age for admission to Law degree courses to appear in Common Law Admission Test (CLAT), for example:

  1. Allahabad High Court’s order in 2014 in “Kanha & Anr. v. Bar Council of India”
  2. Rajasthan High Court’s order in 2015 in “Kshitji Sharma & Anr. v. Bar Council of India & Anr”.

On the contrary, in several cases, the High Courts have refused to interfere with the decision of the BCI to impose a maximum age limit on admission to Law degree courses and conflicting judgments have been passed by different High Courts in writ petitions filed challenging the validity of the said clause. A series of confusing judgments that has further complicated the issue of applicability of the said clause are mentioned below:

  1. In 2009, the Madras High Court upheld the upper age limit criteria of the BCI, but in 2011 the Punjab & Haryana High Court held the age limit ultra vires the BCI’s legislative competence.
  2. In 2013, the BCI formed a one-man committee under Mr Thiru S. Prabakaran, who agreed that the age limit rules were beyond the BCI’s powers, in violation of fundamental rights and the principles of natural justice. On 31 August 2013, the BCI then passed a resolution withdrawing its age limit notification from the Gazette.

The inconsistent stand of the BCI and the views taken by different High Courts on the Rule relating to the “age for admissions” has led to immense hardship to the aspiring law students like the Petitioners herein and serious confusion in the admission procedure in Law Schools across the country. The minimum age criteria for appearing in CLAT has also been changed twice to comply with the stipulations of BCI, which has led to filing of multiple writ petitions before different High Courts across India.

The Bench during the hearing of the current case, 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?” The age cap was prescribed as a tentative measure for this academic year only. 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 for taking admission to the law degree courses, 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. Advocate A.K. 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. AK Prasad submitted that the age-limit was not new and it had been introduced in 2008. 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 made it amply clear by his 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 Human Resource Department. So I don’t understand what jurisdiction they have to fix age-limit”. Advocate Gopal Shankaranarayanan who appeared for one of the affected students 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!

The Supreme Court came to rescue for these qualified yet ineligible students and stayed a notification that was issued by the BCI to fix the upper age limit to 22 years for the 5 year Law Course and 45 years for the 3 year Course to get admission in a Law College. A bench comprising Justices S.A. Bobde and L. Nageswara Rao said it would examine the validity of the BCI decision to raise the age-limit from 20 to 22 years, and putting a cap of 45 years for the three-year Law Course. Until then, for this academic year, i.e., 2017-18, there would be no age limit and admissions would be carried on without any age limit for 5 or 3 years Law Degree Courses.