Pregnant Woman Barred From Taking Law Exam
After missing several classes due to a pregnancy, a second-year law student petitioned the Supreme Court to allow her to appear for the ongoing fourth semester examinations at her college, the Faculty of Law at the University of Delhi. Yesterday, the Supreme Court denied her permission to appear in the exams.
The student had missed two months of classes because of her pregnancy, which meant she did not make the requisite 70% attendance to take the exams. Her lawyer had put forth to the judge that the woman was a diligent student, who had attended class regularly until health complications in her pregnancy prevented her from doing so.
In her petition, the student cited the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, as well as the Maternity Benefit Act. But the court said that maternity leave could not be used as an exception to relax attendance requirements.
“The objective of stipulating rules is to secure a sense of discipline,” the Supreme Court Vacation Bench said yesterday. “We cannot direct at 1pm that a candidate may be allowed to take the examination at 2pm.” The Supreme Court did, however, allow the student to approach the Division Bench of the Delhi High Court.
The Supreme Court also said that it denied the petition because the LL.B (Bachelor of Laws) is a special professional degree, and so the rules set by the Bar Council of India cannot be relaxed for the student. Earlier High Court cases have also denied such permissions to other students who became pregnant during their time at law school.
It’s not hard to understand where this decision is coming from, given that these attendance provisions are likely in place to ensure students are equipped with all the important information and tools they need to succeed on the exams and in the law profession.
But to refuse to differentiate maternity leave from other reasons a student might have poor attendance puts women in law at a systematic disadvantage. There is an argument to be made for greater flexibility; perhaps if the Bar Council of India themselves were to make an exception only in cases where the student’s pregnancy directly hindered them from attending classes.
And particular measures could be put in place to help pregnant law students graduate on time. If a pregnant student is not able to attend classes, resources like taped lectures could be made available to them so they’d be learning the same material either during their pregnancy or after giving birth, putting them in a better position to catch up without having to repeat a year.
To say that maternity leave cannot be a distinguished as a valid reason to relax attendance requirements is, essentially, to say that the Bar Council of India cannot make exceptions for being a woman. It is simply too lazy a ruling. India’s institutions need to be prepared to make accommodations for women in cases like these — otherwise, how can women in India possibly be expected to overcome all of the other institutional obstacles on our road to equality?