The short notice and technological requirements for the National Law School University of India (NLSIU), Bengaluru’s entrance test “deprived a large number of students” from taking the test, the Supreme Court ruled on September 21. This violated the candidates’ right to non-discrimination under Article 14 of the Indian constitution as it especially denied students from marginalised sections of the society, a three-judge bench of Justices Ashok Bhushan, R. Subhash Reddy, and. M.R. Shah decided.

The top court has instead instructed NLSIU to admit students only on the basis of Common Law Admission Test (CLAT) 2020 which is to be held on September 28. Since 2008, all National Law Universities, except NLU Delhi, have used CLAT to admit undergraduate law students. However, this year, because of the pandemic, the test has been delayed by more than four months.

On September 3, NLSIU had announced that it would conduct a separate admission test to avoid a “zero year”, that is, a year with no admissions. It had rationalised the decision by claiming that it could not afford to wait until the end of the month to admit students since unlike all the other NLUs, it has a trimester system. When it announced the technical requirements for the online admission test, it initially allowed candidates to only use Windows desktops and a 1 Mbps connection. After significant backlash from alumni, it eased the requirements to allow Mac, Linux and Android devices and a slower, 512 kbps internet connection. Candidates were only given seven days to register for the test.

Piqued by the test’s exclusionary nature, the former vice chancellor of NLSIU, Prof. Dr R. Venkat Rao, filed a petition in the Supreme Court challenging the NLAT, alleging that the step to conduct NLAT “was taken without any application of mind” and has put the career of students in jeopardy for “purely whimsical reasons”. It accused the current vice chancellor, Prof. Dr Sudhir Krishnaswamy, of turning the University “from an island of excellence to an island of exclusion”. It is on this petition, filed by Rao and Rakesh Kumar Agrawalla, a parent of a CLAT 2020 candidate, that the Supreme Court pronounced its judgement.

About 18,000 students, specially from marginalised sections of the society, couldn’t take the test

The apex court concluded that about 18,000 students could not take the NLSIU-specific entrance test due to NLSIU’s haste in conducting NLAT and the technological requirements imposed therein. The judgement, written by Justice Bhushan, said that since about 69,000 students registered for CLAT 2020 and by NLSIU’s own submission, “NLSIU is the first preference for more than 60 percent of CLAT applicants”, about 41,400 students should have registered for NLAT. However, only 24,603 registered of which only 23,255 could appear. The judgement concluded that these figures showed that a large number of students from marginalised sections were thus denied the chance to take the exam.

This “makes it clear that a large number of students who could have wanted to apply for admission in respondent No.1 University [NLSIU] could not even apply due to shortage of time and technical requirement insisted by respondent No. 1 University [NLSIU]”. — SC Judgement

The bench ruled that NLSIU’s announcement of NLAT was illegal because:

1. Home-based online test cannot ensure transparency, fairness and integrity of the exam: The petitioners argued that in August 2020, Vice Chancellor Sudhir Krishnaswamy, who is also the Secretary of the Consortium of National Law Universities, had filed a counter affidavit in the Delhi High Court arguing against home-based online tests. In that affidavit, Krishnaswamy argued, “a home based online test for around 78,000 students would not be possible as the test will be completely compromised and may even be manipulated by the participants or coaching centres”. He had further submitted that a home-based test “cannot ensure transparency, fairness and the integrity of a high stakes examination process such as CLAT”. “There was no reason for change of mind by respondent No. 2 [Krishnaswamy] within a week,” Justice Bhushan wrote in the judgement as it agreed with the petitioners.

2. Allegations of cheating are immaterial: The court observed that it had “no doubt that it [NLSIU] must have taken all necessary precautions to avoid any malpractices and cheating in the examination”. NLSIU had relied on a mix of AI and human-based proctoring to hold NLAT.

3. As members of consortium of NLUs, NLSIU should not have proceeded with a separate test: The court ruled that their “doctrine of necessity” argument held no water and there is no need to declare the current year as a “zero year”, that is, a year with no admissions.

4. Zero Year argument holds no merit: Citing the exceptional nature of academic year 2020-21 because of the pandemic, a fact that the University Grants Commissions (UGC) also recognised, the court ruled that “universities are not powerless to modify their Academic Calendar” in the face of the pandemic. NLSIU “could have very well found out ways and means” to start the undergraduate course in the middle of October after CLAT is conducted on September 28. “None of the Universities have declared the year as a ‘zero year’,” the court remarked.

5. The petition is maintainable (or valid) on the basis of the credentials of Dr R. Venkata Rao, the second petitioner in the case, and former vice chancellor of NLSIU. Rao was also a member of the Consortium of National Law Universities. Because of these two reasons, “he is fully competent to espouse the cause of education” in this petition.

  • The bench also acknowledged the writ petition that was filed by five CLAT aspirants in the Jharkhand High Court which was dismissed by the lower court since Rao’s petition was pending before the apex court. This is why they filed a special leave petition in the Supreme Court along with an intervening application in this matter.

6. Recommendation of Academic Council was necessary to hold NLAT: The court ruled that the Executive Council of NLSIU could have taken any decision regarding the admission process but to implement it, it required the recommendation of the Academic Council regarding the mode and manner of conducting a separate admission test. The Chairperson of the Academic Council, that is Vice Chancellor Sudhir Krishnaswamy, needed the recommendation of the Academic Council before issuing a notice announcing a separate admission test to replace CLAT.

Application fee to be refunded; status of test centre fee is unknown

Although the judgement does not mention whether NLSIU will have to refund the fee that it collected from NLAT, the law school announced that it would refund the application fee after deducting ₹75 as application processing charges. NLAT’s application cost ₹150 for general category candidates and ₹125 for SC/ST candidates. It is not clear whether the additional fee (₹350) that some candidates paid to take the test at a Testpan centre will also be refunded. We have reached out to NLSIU about that.

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