Friday, December 9, 2022
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Bar Council of India’s discriminatory age cap on study of law is nonsensical 

The Bar Council of India's age limit discriminates against those hailing from underprivileged backgrounds.

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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.

Also read: Bar Council of India asks CJI Dipak Misra not to take up any post-retirement job from govt

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.

But alas,
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.

Also read: NITI Aayog says cap IAS entry age at 27: Keeping services youthful or limiting talent pool?

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.

Ageist system

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.

Also read: Why upper caste poor don’t want age relaxation in job quota

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.

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  1. For pursuing Law degree I was not qualified for CET Exam as I did not score average percentage in graduation in the year 1990 So I took admission for upgrading my self to be qualified for CET to get admission in Law I joined my previous College for PG in COMMERCE I have completed 1st year pg now PG part 2 has started after getting average percentage i was planning for CET to pursue LAW but after hearing this revised petition about age criteria i am disappointed . My age now is 49 also planning for Mphil in finance stream and if possible PhD in the same so for practicing as an advocate will be great help for me . Can someone guide me what to do now ? I am confused

  2. Trust Good sense prevails. The Liberty guaranteed by the constitution of India to the citizens cannot be hi jacked. In fact BCI itself should stand against any such moves by anyone.

  3. Comprehensive n precise analysis by Authours, needs a review by BCI to have Advocates with varied age n experience to contribute in Judiciary.

    • All service class persons, if interested in acquiring LL.B.Degrees, must be allowed to do so. The Knowledge acquired through LL..B degrees widens our functional styles in public good and acts as multivariate catalyst to achieve justice, order ,peace and progress for individual as well for National ambits.

  4. BCI has forgotten its objective – i.e. To spread education of law.
    Instead it has become a corrupt body, cartel of sorts, which aids private law colleges, constrains the govt run ones. And tries to make law education money making business, an elitist profession and not for service of nation or under privileged. The arbitrary and constraint rules prevent access to justice

    When ignorance of law is no excuse, how can age be an excuse in gaining knowledge of law.

    We need BCI to be merged with UGC for the education function, or this function transferred, advocates act be amended

    This govt showed some signs of tackling this menace, but didn’t complete the job

  5. Thanks for moving Barton of justice to removed darkness of injustice which is hard to say for some but for right reason I would like because I tried once for NLIU at the time when I came to know this is first and last for reason of age. I felt disappointed very badly and hurt me a lot because I belong from remote place where mostly population of India spread. Please understand as of me like to do with passion to start at the right not at the late or left to fight.

  6. I am really very sorry to comment that the BCI has really forgotten their real and foremost duty to put a check on the professional misconduct of their fellow brother- advocates and is imposing anti constitutional conditions on the new entrants in the pious profession of advocacy. The point of view of the Honorable Supreme Court of India ,on the subject is praiseworthy , i.e. no age for acquiring education .

  7. I don’t find any reason as to why a particular course can not be studied after a particular age. I wish and hope that the Bar Council of India reconsider it’s decision to bar people from pursuing Law degree, get registered with BCI and even to practice; beyond a particular age.

  8. I think supreme court must have to look into all the professional courses why only law field ? Only education qualification is not enough to sustain in life one must have to provide job opportunities in all the field but with all my responsibilities I would say the judiciary itself is very much corrupt and hence giving judgement and not analysing the ground reality lead to the default of the purpose, so that the supreme court must have to eliminate age restrictions from all the field .

  9. I too wish to do law degree after I retire from service at 65 years. But cannot do in present rules !!

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