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Three recent judgments of the Madras High Court have served to clarify the eligibility criteria for pursuing legal education and thereafter enrolling as advocates.
The Full Bench of Chief Justice Indira Banerjee and Justices R Subbiah and Abdul Quddhose passed the judgments, after deliberating on the application of the Legal Education Rules (‘Rules’), 2008 framed by the Bar Council of India (BCI) under the Advocates Act, 1961.
Rule 5 lays down the following eligibility criteria when it comes to admitting students for a law course in India:
However, the explanation to the Rule bars those candidates from pursuing law who obtain their school or graduate degree from an Open University system without having basic qualification preceding the same.
This bar on Open University candidates was also reiterated in the Madras High Court case of Sakti Rani v. The Secretary of of the Bar Council of Tamil Nadu (2010).
Thereafter, a number of petitions were filed before the Court questioning whether privately schooled candidates were barred from pursuing law, even though they had appeared for and cleared Class X and XII exams conducted under a recognised educational board.
While some of the petitioners were aggrieved by denial of admission to law courses on grounds of having been privately schooled, others were denied enrolment as advocates on the same ground.
The Full Bench of the Court was constituted to conclusively decide on their cases, given the apparent conflict between two Division Bench judgments of the Court on the issue.
In Theerthagiri v. The Director of School Education and others (2016), a Division Bench held that those who were privately schooled were not barred from pursuing law, provided that they obtained their school and college certificates from a recognised Board/University.
However, in SR Deepak v. The Tamil Nadu Dr Ambedkar Law University (2016), another Bench of coordinate strength found that a candidate who pursued her Class X and XII studies privately would not be eligible for law school admission under Rule 5 of the BCI Rules.
On a reading of the BCI Rules, the present Bench ultimately upheld the position in the Theethagiri case, and overruled SR Deepak’s case.
The Court’s conclusion, as noted in the recent judgment of P Raji v. The Secretary, Bar Council of Tamil Nadu and Puducherry is as follows:
“On a perusal of Rule 5 of the Legal Education Rules, it is patently clear that students who prosecute studies privately are to be considered as eligible for admission to the Three Year LLB course, provided they possess the requisite Secondary School Leaving Course Certificate or equivalent certificate, and a Higher Secondary Course Certificate or an equivalent certificate from a Board of Education recognized by the Union or by the State Government or from any equivalent institution of foreign country or any university established by statute or deemed university, and have graduated from a university and/or institution whose degree in law is recognized by the Bar Council, by successfully completing a regular course, which would include a correspondence course or a course through the distance mode.”
It was reiterated that Open University candidates who may be able to obtain higher degrees directly, without basic qualification for pursuing such studies, are not eligible for admission in law courses.
“There is a difference between open universities and other universities and/or boards, in that some of these open universities enable candidates, who do not have the basic qualifications, to obtain higher qualifications straightaway.”
Given that none of the petitioners obtained their qualification from an Open University, the Court found no reason to deny them admission to law school or enrolment as advocates. Hence, the Court eventually ruled in favour of all the petitioner-candidates.
Additionally, it also emphasised that distance learning or correspondence courses are different from an Open University system. A student completing her studies through distance education is not barred from pursuing law, more so since the proviso to Rule 5 expressly allows such candidates.
Hence, in one the judgments, the Court has allowed a school graduate of the National Institute of Open Schooling to pursue a five-year law course.
In rendering these judgments, the Court has also emphasised on the following principles.
Presumption of eligibility where the qualification certificate is from a recognised Board or University
The following extract in P Raji’s case is relevant in this regard,
“We are also of the view that once a recognized university or a recognized board issues a certificate, there is a presumption of eligibility of the candidate to be conferred the certificate.
It is not for any other authority to question the certificate on the ground of ineligibility to obtain the certificate, until and unless the certificate is cancelled by an appropriate authority and/or by a Court of law.
To hold otherwise would be to open the pandora’s box, for years later certificates might be questioned on grounds such as inadequate attendance, failure to clear internal test examinations and the like…”
Eligibility criteria regarding regular programme of study in BCI Rules only pertain to the immediate preceding qualification
The Bench concluded that it is only the immediate preceding qualification that needs to be considered when evaluating whether the candidate has pursued a regular programme (in line with Rule 5) prior to applying for law of enroling as an advocate.
“The language and tenor of Rules 5(a) and 5(b) read with the first proviso and the Explanation make it amply clear that prosecution of a regular course is mandatory only for the immediately previous qualifying certificate and/or degree, for example, graduate degree for the Three Year LLB Course and Senior Secondary Certificate for the Integrated Degree Program…
… Once a degree is found to be authentic, it is not for the Bar Council to go behind the degree and enquire into the eligibility of the candidates to take admission in the University.”
Read the judgments:
M Ramachandran v The Chairman, Law Admission, Tamil Nadu Dr Ambedkar Law University, dated March 7, 2018:
P Raji v The Secretary, BCTN, dated July 23, 2018:
Minor Rahul Vaithinathan v National Institute of Open Schooling and others, dated July 23, 2018