Case Title:-Bar Council of India v. Bonnie Foi Law College & Ors. [SLP(C) No. 22337/2008] and other connected matters
A Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court on Wednesday reserved judgment on a batch of petitions challenging the validity of the All-India Bar Examination. The five-judge Bench comprised Justices Sanjay Kishan Kaul, Sanjiv Khanna, A.S. Oka, Vikram Nath, and J.K. Maheshwari. The lead petition is an appeal by special leave preferred by the Bar Council of India against a 2008 decision of the Madhya Pradesh High Court in a case dealing with the grant of affiliation and recognition to a law college. When the matter travelled to the apex court in appeal, a three-judge Bench headed by Chief Justice T.S. Thakur referred it to a Constitution Bench composed of five Judges for final determination of the "questions of considerable importance affecting the legal profession in general" that were raised before the apex court.
It was during the pendency of this petition that the Bar Council of India, under the chairmanship of Senior Advocate Gopal Subramanium, had decided to conduct an all-India bar exam for the first time in 2010. After more than six years since the referral, and more than 14 years since the High Court ruling, the Constitution Bench is set to finally lay the controversy to rest.
Yesterday, the Court heard the submissions of the Attorney-General of India and Senior Advocate K.K. Venugopal and the amicus curiae, Senior Advocate K.V. Vishwanathan. They called into question the correctness of the law laid down in V. Sudeer v. Bar Council of India & Anr. [(1999) 3 SCC 176] and pushed for a pre-enrolment examination. This argument seemed to find favour with the BCI Chairman, Manan Kumar Mishra, and Vice-Chairman, S. Prabakaran, who appeared on behalf of the statutory body.
Picking up from where he had left off, Vishwanathan continued assailing the Supreme Court decision in V. Sudeer [(1999) 3 SCC 176]. He also questioned the soundness of the ruling in Indian Council of Legal Aid & Advice v. Bar Council of India [(1995) 1 SCC 732], on which the Sudeer Bench had placed reliance. Vishwanathan claimed that by virtue of these decisions, the Bar Council of India had been placed in a subservient position vis-à-vis the state bar councils. He urged that the paramountcy of the Bar Council needed to be preserved in light of the objectives and purposes of the Act, and the organisational framework created under it.
An issue that persistently troubled the Bench, and was pointed out by both Justices Kaul and Khanna, was the implications of the deletion of Clause (d) in Section 24(1) as a result of which, the requirement imposed on a law graduate to undergo a course of "training in law and pass an examination after such training" was removed. Vishwanathan repelled the contention that this would abridge the powers of the Bar Council of India, strenuously arguing that such power could be located in Section 49(1)(ag), which had been kept intact. Therefore, the BCI, Vishwanathan reiterated, was competent to frame rules with respect to the prerequisites for persons who were entitled to practice law.
Justice Kaul mused –
"We are a constitutional court. We could interpret the constitutional question and be done with it. But we have to try and make the system workable…There is no perfect world, in an imperfect world, we have to decide how to reduce the imperfections."
The Bench highlighted a number of issues that followed from the proposal to conduct a pre-enrolment examination, including, inter alia, the impact of "hundreds of people enrolling on the same day" after the results of the pre-enrolment examination on seniority, the prerequisites for applying for the examination, the competence of a law graduate to work and receive emoluments in the "interregnum period", the difference in the academic calendars of different colleges, and the lack of uniformity of fee structures. Justice Kaul observed –
"Say, pre-enrolment exams take place. We don't want another litigation on how it will work out. Can there be some thought process, some uniformity in it?"
Several suggestions were floated by Vishwanathan, such as making students eligible to take the examination in their final year to prevent loss of time and conducting the examination biannually to accommodate differences in academic calendars.
Mishra reminded the Court that their purpose was to determine the competence of the Bar Council to conduct qualifying examinations. Justice Kaul pithily remarked –
"Your argument is basically that you are free to hold pre or post-enrolment exams as you deem fit. And that you should be allowed to do that."
In the course of his submissions, Vishwanathan also relied on Satish Kumar Sharma v. Bar Council of Himachal Pradesh [(2001) 2 SCC 365] and Pratap Chandra Mehta v. State Bar Council of Madhya Pradesh [(2011) 9 SCC 573], which he asserted, recognised the overarching powers of the Bar Council.
After the amicus curiae concluded, the Court heard the submissions made on behalf of the Bar Council of India. Mishra, after delineating the spheres in which the state bar councils and the Bar Council of India operated, urged that the power to make rules to prescribe prerequisites were conferred by Section 49. The conditions laid down in Section 24 indicated the eligibility simpliciter, which could further be qualified by the Bar Council in the exercise of its powers of, inter alia, superintendence and control.
The Court also heard the arguments advanced by the counsel for the petitioners who endorsed the abolition of the post-enrolment bar examination. It was contended that the All India Bar Examination was unconstitutional and arbitrary. Advocate Kartik Seth, assailed the Bar Council on a number of counts, including the levy of an exorbitant fee for enrolment. Seth also reiterated Vishwanathan's recommendation of making final-year law students eligible to take the bar. Justice Kaul countered –
"You have prepared well; you have done your homework. But we cannot take into consideration everything…This is a constitutional court. We cannot say charge Rs 3000 instead of Rs 3500. What you are giving, are suggestions. Let the Bar Council of India decide whether they would want to implement them."