Age limit for LLB: Confusion continues as Supreme Court says BCI did not follow procedure

The ambiguity surrounding age limit for studying law in the country only grows. The Supreme Court on Friday dismissed an appeal by the Bar Council of India (BCI) challenging the Madras High Court’s decision to quash a Bar Council of India notification which purported to do away with the age limit for LLB courses.

A Bench of JS Khehar and Rohinton Fali Nariman JJ. upheld the Madras High court verdict which had set aside a BCI notification amending a particular clause in the Rules on Standards of Legal Education. The High Court had held that BCI had not followed the amendment procedure as laid down in the Rules.

The dispute has its genesis in the introduction of a Rule fixing the age limit for the law course. In 2008, the BCI introduced Clause 28 in Schedule III of the Rules on Standards of Legal Education (Rules) framed under the Advocates Act, 1961. Under this clause, law courses were to have a fixed upper age limit of  20 years for the 5-year course (22 for SC/ST) and 30 years for the 3-year LLB course (35 for SC/ST).

Consequently, petitions challenging this provision were filed in various High Courts across the country. In 2011, the Punjab & Haryana High Court held that the Rule was arbitrary and irrational and that the making of such Rule was “beyond the legislative competence” of the BCI.

In 2013, the BCI appointed a one-man committee to re-consider the clause. Mr. S. Prabhakaran, the BCI member of the one-man committee, eventually observed that the clause was violative of Article 14, and ought to be deleted. Subsequently, the BCI passed a notification dated September 28, 2013, withdrawing the rule.

But the matter did not end there.

B Ashok, an advocate filed a writ petition before the Madras High Court, alleging that the BCI notification of 2013 should be quashed as it was in contravention of the amendment procedure under the Rules. The writ was allowed with a Bench of S Manikumar and VM Velumani holding that,

“We are of the view that Clause 28 under Schedule-III to Rule 11 of the Rules of Legal Education, 2008, has been amended, without following the provisions of the Act and the Rules made thereunder.”

A consequence of this is that the age limit clause technically still stands.

Interestingly, the Bombay High Court, in the meanwhile had declared Rule 28 to be non-existent. Advocate Yasmin Tavaria had challenged the constitutionality of Clause 28, arguing that once the provision has been struck down, there was no occasion for the Bar Council to withdraw the Gazette Publication containing the impugned clause.

A Bench of Justices AS Oka and AK Menon, relying on the 2011 decision of the Punjab & Haryana High Court held,

“Suffice it to say that the decision of the Punjab and Haryana High Court has attained finality and hence, the impugned Regulation/Rule 28 does not exist on the Rule Book…The Bar Council of India is bound to consider the finding of the High Court that the Rule is arbitrary and is violative of Article 14 of the Constitution of India.”

Taking into account all these conflicting decisions, the BCI had chosen to challenge the judgment of the Madras High Court in Supreme Court. In its petition, the BCI took the following stand:

“It is most humbly stated and submitted that learned Division Bench [of Madras High Court] failed to appreciate that the dismissal of Special Leave Petition (C) No. 13846 of 2010 filed by the Writ Petitioner therein in limine cannot be said to be affirmation of the said Order dated 09.09.2009 passed by the Hon’ble High Court of Madras in W. P. No. 14877 of 2009 titled as M. Santhosh Antony Vareed vs. Registrar, Dr. Ambedkar Law University, Tamil Nadu by this Hon’ble Court.

It is further stated and submitted that Hon’ble High Court of Punjab and Haryana and Hon’ble High Court of Judicature at Madras have expressed exactly opposite opinions in respect of the competence of the petitioner for framing the Clause 28 of Rule 11 of the Rules of Legal Education, 2008 and as such, the same requires consideration and adjudication by this Hon’ble Court to settle the issue for once and all in the interest of the legal profession.”

The Supreme Court, however, chose to dismiss the case asking the BCI to follow the proper procedure for withdrawing the said clause. Does this effectively mean Clause 28, and the age limit it prescribes, still stands?