Legal Status and Roadblocks for a Legal Intern
In a dynamic work place with ever growing needs in every sector one can always find the requirement of fresh graduates with not only requisite educational qualification but also some on-hand experience. As seemingly self-contradicting it sounds, these requirements are not only of the employers but also sanctioned by the statutory bodies which includes institutions like, University Grant Commission, Bar Council of India (BCI) and All India Council for Technical Education. In a cut throat work space with abundance of interns/ trainees it very surprising to know that there is no proper laws and provisions for their safety and conduct. This particular system works without any judicial or statutory regulation making it an easy prey for those who can and have the ability to exploit it. Even though there are a number of provisions and acts governing and safeguarding the rights of the employees and protecting them from any sort of misconduct and misgovernance but nowhere they discuss exclusively about interns or anything remotely close to interns and their work. There are labour laws also known as employment laws present in India which address the relationship between employer-employee and the union. It is more concerned about employee’s rights at work. Apart from the labour laws we can also find Apprentices Act, 1961 and similarly there is no mention of Interns in it.
The problem with internships arises when they start exploiting the interns physically, mentally as well as sexually. There is no way to turn and seek help because one wrong move and all your efforts would go in vain. As it is interns are not provided stipend, the only reason they still stick to such programs is to gain practical knowledge and for a completion certificate, if lucky then interns do get a letter of recommendation which might help them further in their professional career. Unpaid internships are not easy to deal with specially if the intern is not privileged enough in terms of money. A person who is living away from home, managing studies as well as rent even after that has to spend on transportation in order to work at a place which is not paying. Already the situation is not easy for them and not having any provision or rule to shield them from any sort of misconduct acts like icing on the cake. Unpaid internships violate the Article 14 of Part III of the Indian Constitution as it fails to provide equal opportunity to all interns coming from different economic backgrounds. In countries like UK, USA and Canada unpaid jobs which provide immediate benefit to the employer are not legal. In India they are very much legal.
“The Bar Council of India shall ensure that the arrangement and placement for Internship shall be ensured by the BCI and by the law school itself and the students will not be required to make arrangements for their internships at Regulatory Bodies, Government Organization, Law firms, Advocates, etc., on their own.”
The Rule 25, BCI Rules[i], prescribes that the minimum period of internship for registered law students is 12 weeks for a 3-year Course Stream and 20 weeks for the integrated 5 years Course. This in no way specifies the place where the law student should intern. Some law schools have their specific requirement related to the institution where the pupil should intern other do not have any such condition. The Delhi High Court on 10th January, 2020 agreed with the fact that these internships put undue pressure on students even when they don’t have the ways and means to secure the same. The Division Bench of Justices Siddharth Mridul and Najmi Waziri through a Suo motto order assured that both the Bar Council of India as well as the institution where the student is enrolled will be responsible for providing the internship opportunities to all law students in order to meet the BCI guidelines. There are scenarios where internships end up being a nightmare even for the employer. For instance, in a case where the judgement was delivered by the bench comprising of Justices Pradeep Nadrajog and Mukta Gupta on 27th November, 2015. A portion of the judgement was plagiarised by one of the law interns who wrote a part of the 275 pages judgement. The judges apologised on the behalf of the intern and took full liability. On the other hand, there are cases where the interns were applauded for their excellent work by the judges, like in the case of Aruna Shaunbaugh[ii] where Justice Markanday Katju thanked and appreciated all his interns and clerk for their highly valuable intellectual contribution and extreme efforts. Such incidents shed light on the importance of appropriate rules and laws which can recognise the intellectual property right of a legal intern to provide him/ her with the deserved credit.
Critical Appraisal and Way Forward
The bigger concern lies in the fact that the internships are merely based on oral agreement which means even if there is breach, the intern will be left with no option to counter it. The best possible remedy available with the inter is to file a complaint against such employee in the Disciplinary Committee of the State Bar Association. On one side there is no recognition given to interns in any law while on the other hand Prevention of Sexual Harassment at Work Place Act recognises (legal) interns within the ambit of ‘employee’.
As much inherent part internships are of a law student’s professional life there is a need to maintain a system of check and balance to protect the interns from work place harassment, lack of safety, non-existing wages and over working. Unpaid internships are harmful for both - the interns as well as the person hiring them as there is no accountability of the intern’s quality of work and there is risk involved in sharing matters of confidentiality. If implementing laws under advocates and lawyers is considered to be difficult then there can be laws while dealing with big firms and companies.
~Authored by Ritika Rawat