Raising the Indian “Bar”: Legality and Feasibility of a Proposed Exam

Despite being passed in December 2009, a Supreme Court judgment with tremendous ramifications for the practice of law came to our notice only recently.

In Bar Council of India v. Bonnie Foi Law College, Justice Dalveer Bhandari and Justice H. L. Dattu mandated the Center to conduct bar examinations to test candidates for their suitability or otherwise for entry into the legal profession.

You heard right: current law students who expect to graduate this year may not be able to don the robes of an advocate without first clearing a bar exam.

The Supreme Court order dated on 14 December 2009, came in the light of recommendations by a special committee constituted by the court and headed by the Solicitor General, Gopal Subramanium. This committee was primarily tasked with making recommendations concerning the manner of affiliation and recognition of law colleges by the Bar Council of India.

Upon receipt of the Committee report, the Supreme Court mandated the Centre to implement the recommendations, explicitly referring to the introduction of a Bar Examination:

“The most significant achievement of this entire exercise has been the introduction of the Bar Examination. Learned Solicitor General submits that the first Bar Examination shall be conducted in July-August, 2010 by a specially constituted independent body, consisting of experts of various disciplines of national stature. In the facts and circumstances of this case, we deem it appropriate to direct the Central Government to ensure that the entire programme framed by the three-member Committee is operationalized forthwith. We further direct the concerned institutions to fully cooperate with the Bar Council of India.”

India is not new to bar exams. The Indian Advocates Act, 1961 required holders of law degrees who wished to enter practice to complete a course in practical training and also pass an examination. But, in 1973, this provision was deleted by way of amendment, and since then, a law graduate from a BCI-recognized university could directly enroll as a lawyer. The BCI attempted to introduce an apprenticeship or practical training course in 1998, whereby recently graduated law students would have to work for a year with a counsel before they could enrol as advocates. However, the Supreme Court struck it down on grounds of lack of competence (see V. Sudeer v. Bar Council of India, AIR 1999 SC 1167).

The Court held that under the prevailing statutory framework, the BCI did not have the authority to prescribe conditions for training and examinations after graduation; it would first have to amend the Advocates Act to confer such powers unto itself. Notwithstanding this, the court still went on to explicitly endorse the need for an apprenticeship and a Bar examination, albeit after appropriate statutory amendments in this regard.

In the light of the V Sudeer case, one is forced to contend with the legality of the current Supreme Court mandate in favour of bar exams. Needless to state, the Supremes are well within their right to reverse Sudeer or distinguish it, but neither of it happened in the present (Bonnie vs OUI) case. In fact, the Supreme Court was not even deciding the issue of whether or not bar council exams could be introduced by the Bar Council without an enabling amendment to the Advocates Act.

The other tricky part of this ruling is that it could be construed as a judicial mandate for legislative amendment. In effect, the Supreme Court has directed the Center to implement the Committee report and permit the holding of a bar exam by a certain date. But if such bar exam can only be legally instituted after legislative amendment, one might argue that the court has effectively directed the center to move such legislative amendment. Is this constitutionally sustainable? If such amendment is indeed part of the mandate, can the government formulate such a bill and present it before the end of this budget session to comply with the July-August 2010 date?

In fact, the report by the SG committee clearly recognizes the need for legislative amendment in this regard:

“A Bar Examination should be introduced for the purpose of admitting law graduates to the Bar: As discussed supra, the introduction of a bar examination would ensure maintenance of standards in the legal profession, as well as standardization and constant innovation in the standards of curriculum, teaching methodology etc. The Committee is, therefore, of the opinion that qualifying a bar examination should be made a requirement prior to admission to the Bar by all State Bar Councils across the country. In light of the decision of the Supreme Court in the V. Sudeer case, such a requirement may be introduced in the Advocates Act, 1961 by means of a statutory amendment.”

Given that the Supreme Court was only directing an implementation of the Committee Report, one might argue that their order be construed as a mandate to the Centre to also begin the process of amending the Advocates Act. If this is so, can the Center comply with the courts time-frame to permit the Bar Council and other relevant authorities to hold such examinations by July-August 2010? The Center is already reeling under the pressure of multiple bills, some of which it now fears will not sail through as it initially expected (the one on nuclear liability limitation posing the greatest set of problems for it). Given that it is thinking of stalling some of these bills, will it take on another one at this stage and within this short time frame?

Anyway back to the report of the Committee. Prior to framing his report, the Solicitor General had solicited comments from a few of us involved in legal education. Pursuant to his request, we sent him a rather lengthy note, strongly recommending a bar exam as a potential “quality” control measure. For this interested, we’ve put up this note on SSRN (we are in the process of revising this note for the purpose of publication in a law journal).

In this piece, we specifically note:

“This note (prepared in response to a request from a Supreme Court Committee) begins by analysing the constitutional and regulatory framework pertaining to legal education in India with special emphasis on the two principal authorities in this sphere: The BCI and the UGC. It then goes on to describe ambiguities and criticism regarding the ambit of the BCI’s powers, and accreditation mechanisms in higher education in a few other countries.

It then goes on to recommend reforms, most of which can be effectuated within the corners of the existing regulatory framework, without the need for statutory reform. Others may require statutory amendments.

The principal recommendations made in this note are as follows:

i) Indian legal education ought to encompass much more than merely training students for the bar. Indeed, the aim ought to be to create an effective social engineer who is socially sensitive and uses the law in myriad ways to help better society.

ii) The Bar Council of India (BCI) has no legal/constitutional authority to regulate the full spectrum of legal education, independent of the Universities. In fact, Section 7(1)(h) of the Advocates Act clearly mentions that the BCI is to lay down standards of legal education in consultation with the Universities in India imparting such education and the State Bar Councils.

iii) An all-India Bar Entrance Examination should be introduced as a quality-control mechanism, instead of the existing accreditation system which is patently flawed, ineffective, costly and subject to abuse. It will not only ensure a qualitative check on the number of lawyers entering the Bar, but would also give the Bar Council scope to regulate legal education in a more robust manner.

iv) As a more substantive policy measure, we recommend a more thorough overhaul of the present regulatory structure pertaining to legal education in India. The BCI powers should only extend to regulating that aspect of legal education that is intrinsically connected with the practice of law at the Bar. Some of the regulatory functions that are presently being performed by the BCI, and which do not relate directly to practice at the Bar should be devolved to another authority. This authority should ideally be a standing committee on legal education under the IRAHE as proposed by the NKC.”

Interestingly, the Supreme order also endorses the Committee’s recommendation for a Directorate of Legal Education under the BCI – a body meant to specifically regulate legal education within the bounds of the BCI powers. This was recently made operational, under the leadership of Prof. VB Coutinho. Rahul Singh, who taught at NLS Bangalore till recently, has been appointed as the Deputy Director. Our very best wishes as this body tries to navigate the rather challenging terrain of legal education.

By: Shamnad Basheer and Sroyon Mukherjee

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  • 1. The students will have to give one more exam, if many don't clear in first attempt, it will pave way for coaching institutes to earn more money. Further, if examination fees is more, the legal education may become out of reach from poor people.
    2. BCI, UGC, SC, Committee…if all of them don't have belief in our current education system (which is quite similar in all colleges according to BCI norms), and in examination system…then is it more suitable to cross check the whole system like this. Instead of improving the infrastructure, and quality of education being provided by good teachers, and unifying the whole examination system, It doesn't seem to me that adding one more test will improve the standard in legal profession. Its just like giving driving license after a test rather than teaching how to drive safely. In a case like India where large backlog of cases are pending, The effective help of lawyers is also needed. and to achieve the Goal, we need to improve our education system, rather than adding more and more tests.