Written by Priya Garg and Harshita Singhal
Recently, the case of a student being denied admission by Indian Institute of Technology Bombay (IIT-B) despite having a high rank, allegedly due to an erroneous click by the candidate, came to the spotlight. The matter is subjudice.
The incident drew national attention. It reminds us of the errors or acts of injustice that university officials might commit while dealing with the admission-related process. For instance, in the field of law, the National Law University, Sonipat (DBRANLU) and the Himachal Pradesh National Law University Shimla, were amongst the prestigious law colleges that issued a revised list of selected candidates after arbitrarily changing the mandatory admission requirements, as their first list had errors. A writ petition has been filed and is pending before the Punjab and Haryana High Court against DBRANLU.
Against this backdrop, we highlight that how, in numerous cases, where the university officials may commit errors or take arbitrary/unjust decisions, even if aggrieved students choose to knock on the doors of the court to seek justice, there is a risk that by the time verdict comes, the petitioner is left without an efficacious or adequate remedy. This is particularly so when admission-related disputes continue to be pending without any adequate interim relief. Any subsequent remedy in such cases becomes practically inadequate with loss of studies as the semester advances substantially. No other remedy, besides restitutionary remedy, can be as effective. However, restitutionary remedy is not as easily available.
In cases such as Chandigarh Administration v. Jasmine Kaur, compensatory relief (and not restitutionary relief in the form of granting of admission seat) was granted for the previous unjustified loss of the admission opportunity. This was done solely because the time limit for filling in the vacant seat got expired and by the time the verdict came, another student who was previously selected, though erroneously, had already continued with his studies at the concerned institution. Therefore, it seemed unjust to ask the latter student to discontinue his studies in the middle of the year.
In the subsequent case of S. Krishna Sradha v. State of Andhra Pradesh and Others, this erroneous approach of granting compensation as a relief in admission-related matters was rectified to some extent. Endorsing the approach taken in Asha v. Pt BD Sharma University of Health Sciences and Others, in Krishna Sradha, the court said that the restitutionary remedy of allowing admission to an applicant who was previously denied admission arbitrarily could be granted. This can be so even if the semester has started and the last date for filling in the vacant seats have expired by the time the verdict is pronounced. However, a discretionary qualifier of the rarest of rare cases was added, that’s is, if the court finds that one, no fault is attributable to the candidate; two, the candidate has pursued his/her rights and legal remedies expeditiously; and three, there is fault on the part of the authorities and breach of rules and regulations.
The rarest of rare qualifier has multiple problems.
The first is on account of ambiguity in what counts as “no fault attributable to the candidate”. Would there be different standards for children from economically weaker sections (EWS) or backward classes? Similarly, the condition of “pursuing rights and legal remedies expeditiously” presumes that everyone is in a position to obtain quality legal counsel and assistance, a premise distant from the ground realities.
Furthermore, it is unclear from the Krishna Sradha case if there exists a fourth qualifier that such relief would be granted only if the compensatory relief is inadequate, inadequacy being a subjective term again. In the Krishna Sradha case the court observed that the chances of the compensatory relief being inadequate are more in professional courses. This is a flawed presumption. In every course, every student, in his/her own circumstances, has reasons to value his/her admission to the course.
Further, a careful reading of the relief granted in Krishna Sradha shows that another filter against the granting of restitutionary remedy is that such a remedy may be granted only within a reasonable period of time, that is, within one month of passing of the last date provided by the university for seeking admission. If the court’s decision does not come within such time and/or if an additional seat cannot be created to accommodate the aggrieved student, admission can be granted only in the next academic session. This leaves the student with the loss of one year on account of delay in judicial decision making.
In light of the limited nature of the reliefs that can be granted to a student, should he choose to challenge an admission decision before the judiciary, it is the responsibility of the universities that when they seek documentation at the pre-admission stage they ask for only the most “basic” and “important” documents given the function the document performs. Further, the notification should clarify which documents are mandatory. Colleges should not be permitted to subsequently arbitrarily change the implications of non-submission of documents in the required format, particularly if they have not reserved the discretion to do so. This alone would be in the interest of certainty, objectivity and fairness.
In addition, at present, many universities tend to give the responsibility of answering helpline numbers provided to university officials as an additional responsibility. Instead, there should be a personnel appointed on a full-time basis specifically to answer such queries timely.
Besides, the judiciary itself should be sensitive to the delicate and time-bound nature of these proceedings. Therefore, in fixing the date for hearing or while deciding upon the fate of a preponement application or an application seeking interim relief in such cases, courts across the country should demonstrate a more empathetic approach. This is unlike the approach recently adopted by the Punjab and Haryana High Court in the pending writ petition, Shrey Kumar Garg v. State of Haryana and Others, where the next date for hearing has been fixed for February 2021 despite a request for preponement by the petitioner. By the time the matter is decided on merits the first semester would have come to an end. The courts must realise that in such matters both kinds of students are victims: Ones who are unjustly denied admission, due to procedural or substantive lapses by the university, and the ones who are awarded admission by the university as a result of its erroneous/arbitrary decision.
Additionally, strengthening the role and infrastructure of state and national education tribunals can be a way forward to ensure speedy disposal of admission-related cases. At present, awareness about the existence and role of these tribunals is not as wide. There is lack of clarity on their role across all the states. Since in admission-related matters, time is of essence, a specified timeframe must be provided in the rules for educational tribunal. Further, there should be special guidelines for grant of interim relief because such relief is crucial in admission-related matters.
While concluding, we would like to point out that in Saurabh Chaudhary v. Union of India, it has been said, what was intuitive even otherwise: Unjust denial of admission is violation not only of a fundamental right but also that of a human right.
It is important that courts as well as admission officials take greater note of this.
(Garg is an advocate at Delhi High Court and Singhal is a graduate from Campus Law Centre, Faculty of Law, University of Delhi)
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