Steep bar council registration fees are driving law students away from the profession

Some state bar councils charge as much as Rs 40,000 as enrolment fee, pushing disadvantaged students away from law as a career.

Law students are having to pay upto Rs 40,000 as bar council registration fees (Image: fb/tnnlu)Law students are having to pay upto Rs 40,000 as bar council registration fees (Image: fb/tnnlu)

Atul Krishna | January 13, 2024 | 10:27 AM IST

NEW DELHI: The Supreme Court, in May 2023, had observed that state Bar Councils under the Bar Council of India (BCI) should not charge more than Rs 600 as enrolment fees from fresh graduates. The observation came amidst a flurry of petitions filed by students against the high enrolment fees of state bar councils.

Bar Council of India membership is mandatory for fresh graduates to practise law in courts. However, the overall fees for this has risen over the years, despite the Advocates Act recommending that it be kept at Rs 750. Moreover, the fees vary widely depending on the state. In Tamil Nadu, students have to pay around Rs 14,000 while in Odisha, the fee crosses Rs 40,000.

Even in states that have kept enrollment fees as per the Advocates Act, students are forced to pay a significantly-higher “total fee”. This is pushing students from financially-weak and marginalised backgrounds away from law and to other jobs.

The state bar councils, however, maintain that the costs of maintaining records and verifying certificates have gone up. They also pointed out that the bar councils are dependent on student fees for meeting expenses and do not get government funds.

High enrolment fee

The Odisha State Bar Council charges one of the highest fees in the country – Rs 13,200 for general category and Rs 10,200 for candidates from the historically-marginalised Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes category.

The council also charges Rs 10,000 for Advocates’ Welfare-Cum-Death Benefit Scheme Fund, Rs 5,000 for Advocates’ Welfare Fund, Rs 5,000 for Advocates Welfare Corpus Fund, Rs 3,600 for Advocates’ Welfare Fund of BCI for Odisha, and Rs 3,300 for Advocates Welfare Fund Trust. In total, students have to pay around Rs 42,000 upfront.

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“No state is following the rules of the Advocate Act. There are some states like Kerala which keep to the rules and charge this minimum mandatory fee but even then, the total fee is above Rs 20,000,” said Shanmuga Nathan, state convenor of Tamil Nadu Law Students’ Association.

“The question is: where is this money going? If you look at support for students, there is none. In Tamil Nadu, if one has studied law outside the state, they ask for money one is willing to contribute to the advocate welfare fund. There is no option,” said Nathan.

Students across states have raised this issue but to no avail. “We had given in writing that there is a need to reduce the enrolment fees. However, the 25 members elected to the state council just sit there and do nothing,” said Rohit Kumar Suna of All Odisha Law Students and Lawyers Association. Despite all the difficulties, students are not willing to speak on record against the bar councils fearing backlash.

Leaving law jobs

The high enrolment fees have affected students from underprivileged families the most. The high fee, combined with the low pay that a junior advocate gets, is pushing students away from law and into other professions.

“People from less well-to-do families are forced to look at more lucrative options. None of the fresh lawyers make enough to cover their daily expenses. They get Rs 5,000 to Rs 6,000 a month. Someone working at a call centre would make much more,” said Nathan. “Many students came to us because they could not afford the fees and we had to start funding campaigns on WhatsApp. In the past three-four years we have raised funds for five students,” he said.

Some students work other jobs to raise funds for the fee. However, if they cross a certain age-limit in the process, they have to pay thousands more. In Odisha, for instance, the advocates’ welfare fund charges Rs 10,000 for students below 25 years of age and Rs 12,000 for those between 25 and 30 years. The fee rises to Rs 17,000 for people above 40.

“Students have to ask their parents for money or take loans… Rs. 42,000 is not a small amount. By the time students get to the second year, they have already started looking for ways to accumulate this money. Otherwise, they’ll ruin two or three years raising the amount and the enrollment fees will go up,” said Suna.

Bar council expenses

Members of the state bar councils explained that the fees were raised to meet the growing expenses. They also pointed out that the fee prescribed by the Advocates Act is as per costs prevailing in 1961 when the law was passed and has not been adjusted since.

“This fee structure of Rs 750 was decided back when the Act came into force. It hasn’t seen any enhancement in the minimum fees since. Expenses have increased. There are more office staff now. Depending upon the number of members, the expenses also increase,” said Ajithan Nampoothiri C S, vice chairperson, Bar Council of Kerala.

State council members also said that the BCI rules practically demand that students pay at least Rs 7,000 in addition to the Rs 750. This includes the life-time membership fee of Rs 3,000 without which students will not be enrolled in BCI.

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“The BCI life membership fee of Rs 3,000 is compulsory. BCI has also asked all state councils to verify all degrees and certificates issued post June 2010. It is only then that the original enrolment certificates can be issued. We verify these certificates and for that universities charge differently. Some charge Rs 2,100 and some charge Rs 3,000. We collect Rs 4,000 on average for that,” said Nampoothiri.

Plus, staff for maintaining student records, e-payment systems and other infrastructure also require funds. The Bar Council of Kerala spent Rs 2 crore to set up their e-governance system, said Nampoothiri.

“We have converted everything as per modern standards but maintaining these costs a lot of money. The only income for bar councils is through students. No bar council receives any assistance from the government,” said Nampoothiri.

However, students countered that the bar councils have made little effort to help even disadvantaged students.

“I don’t know why it is so difficult for them to consider an exemption. If someone wants to claim an exemption, they can ask them to provide income, revenue certificates. They are charging around Rs 11,000 even from SC, ST students. That is just Rs. 3,000 less than the fee charged from the unreserved category. It is totally unfair,” said Nathan.

Lack of government funds

One way of reducing the financial burden on students is through state government grants, the state councils suggest. “The government should give subsidies. We are giving stipends to students from the welfare fund. We had started the practice when the government had assured us that funds would be provided to us. But then they backed out. Currently, stipends are provided from the Bar Council’s welfare fund,” said Nampoothiri.

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