The Supreme Court has asked the Bar Council of India to reconsider its rule on age limit for admission into law courses. The court said that there is no age to acquire education.
Three years ago, the Bar Council of India (BCI) decided to impose an ageist bar on the study of law. Under this nonsensical norm, only those under 20 years of age were eligible to be admitted for the five-year integrated LLB programme and those under 30 years for the three-year post graduate LLB programme. The matter is now listed in the court for this week.
Problems with age bar
Age bars are problematic for more reasons than one. First, the limit is arbitrary. Why 20? Why not 21 or 25 for that matter? Indeed, the sheer arbitrariness is evidenced by the fact that the BCI itself yo-yoed on this count. It first indicated that the cut-off was 20 years for the five-year BA LLB course. And, then changed it to 22 for no rhyme or reason.
Second and more egregious, age bars discriminate against those hailing from underprivileged backgrounds.
Consider the case of Michael Sam, a homeless orphan who undertook odds job to pay for food and lodging. Despite adverse circumstances, he found a passion for learning and saved enough money to get an education. We discovered him by chance and enrolled him into our training programme at IDIA (Increasing Diversity by Increasing Access to Legal Education), an organisation that seeks to empower marginalised communities through legal education.
We knew Michael would make an excellent lawyer. Unfortunately, when we applied on his behalf for CLAT and other law entrance exams, we were told that he was too old for school! We immediately filed an intervention petition in the Supreme Court, where apart from standard pleadings, we described his pain through a poignant poem, some bits of which are excerpted below:
“On the streets I found
Much fury and sound
Did odd jobs and all,
to find food and stall.
But loved to read and think
And make many a link
Discovered one day
The law and its way
Through an IDIA that came,
with a more inclusive game.
Access, Diversity and all
Elite bastions to fall
Charging me with hope
About the law and its stroke
To fight injustice we see,
and be the best we can be.
CLAT said no!
Too old for school you know.
With sadness I find
The law is unkind
Age is a ceiling
For those without feeling.
The name’s Michael Sam
But who gives a damn!
Born without a date
Then left to my fate
Orphaned by parents,
And now by the state.”
Under the terms of Article 14 of the Constitution of India, no rule can be ‘arbitrary’ or ‘discriminate’ against a certain section of people. The age bar devised by the Bar Council of India (a body which ought to know the Constitution better than most of us) reeks of ‘arbitrariness’. There is absolutely no logical co-relation between age and the study of the law.
Freedom to experiment
Also, students often find it difficult to make the right career choice at the tender age of 16-17. We must permit them the freedom to experiment before they freeze themselves into a professional course. In fact, history is replete with examples of late bloomers.
Consider the case of Shon Hopwood, a criminal-turned-law professor who now teaches at Georgetown University. He studied the law while in jail. Much like Nelson Mandela, who finally completed his law degree at 70 while in jail.
Closer home, Justice Prabha Sridevan of the Madras High Court took to the law in her mid-30s after marriage and motherhood. She went on to become one of our most distinguished judges, particularly in the field of intellectual property law. Had the age bar struck during her time, we would have lost out on this wonderful talent.
Even from an educational standpoint, it always helps to have a diverse set of students in class, including the ‘aged’ ones, particularly for an inherently interdisciplinary study such as law, which often draws its content from other disciplines. Take patent law, for instance, which requires a deep familiarity with science and technology. A cut-off of 20 years would mean that none of our science graduates can enter the coveted halls of the leading NLUs.
A Latin maxim states that the ignorance of law is no excuse. The age bar for the study of law flies in the very face of this aphorism. The law (and its study through a professional course) must be accessible to one and all, irrespective of age.
Indian education has perennially suffered from an age bias. One could perhaps trace this back to our ancient ashrama system, where life was divided into four stages comprising Brahmacharya (student), Grihastha (householder), Vanaprastha (retired) and Sannyasa (renunciate). This ‘stage wise’ segregation of life appears to have left an indelible imprint in our collective consciousness, causing us to assume that after a certain cut-off, we’re not fit enough to study. Or, be in the company of those who can.
Indeed, at a meeting of legal educationalists some years ago, the vice-chancellor of an elite NLU asked: “How can we permit 50-year-old men to be in close proximity to our 18-year-old girls?” I responded: “Alas, that bridge has already been crossed. For most ‘vice’-chancellors are on the wrong side of 50!”
The author is the Bok Visiting Professor of Law at the University of Pennsylvania Law School and the Founder and Managing Trustee of IDIA (Increasing Diversity By Increasing Access to Legal Education). Public interest fellows at IDIA Eshwar Ramachandran and Bhavya Mahajan assisted the author in this piece.