Legal Eagle: Lawyer-Nun’s Bid To Contest SC Bar Poll Thwarted

Legal Eagle: Lawyer-Nun’s Bid To Contest SC Bar Poll Thwarted

Unlike other members of the SCBA, a nun who is elected to the managing committee will truly work for the people and not for money because they are not allowed to have bank accounts

Olav AlbuquerqueUpdated: Thursday, May 16, 2024, 09:50 PM IST
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The Supreme Court of India | File/PTI

Those who profess to represent God in human affairs must not always be taken seriously because their wisdom is based upon tradition and custom which is man-made. This is true of all religions, because whether it is Hinduism, Islam, Christianity or Shintoism, people blindly worship men or women who profess to represent God — with disastrous consequences.

This has emerged when a nun, who is practicing in the Supreme Court, wanted to contest the prestigious Supreme Court Bar Association (SCBA) elections, which is apolitical, but was refused permission by her congregation to do so. Her congregation has not understood that if this nun wins the election, she will be able to influence policies to benefit destitute women. Many senior advocates do have political affiliations but by-and-large, it is individual advocates who contest these elections because of the prestige it brings them which in turn may help them garner more clients.

The contrarian point of view is that a nun renews her vows of chastity, poverty, and obedience to the head of her congregation whom she can never disobey. These nuns and priests cannot reason why but must do and die. Unlike other members of the SCBA, a nun who is elected to the managing committee will truly work for the people and not for money because they are not allowed to have bank accounts. The sisters of Saint Ann of Providence, to which Sr Jessy Kurien belongs, is an Italy-based congregation that has been active in India since 1871.

Rather than see the enormous benefit of allowing a member of their congregation to contest the elections, the Mother Superior and managing council of her congregation refused permission to Sister Jessy Kurien to contest the SCBA elections, thereby bringing to an ignominious end what would have been a first in these elections — a nun who is wedded to Lord Jesus Christ, being elected to the most powerful Bar Association in the country. Her victory would create a first for all time to come — a nun contesting and being elected as a member of the managing committee of the SCBA.

Jessy Kurien, the only nun practicing law from Saint Ann of Providence, says the Church allowed her to become a member of the National Commission for Minority Educational Institutions in 2008.This is a government of India body and each member has powers akin to that of a district civil judge. The protocol offered was similar to that of a secretary to the government of India.

She began to practice law despite being a nun, 19 years ago soon after the Supreme Court ruled that nuns and priests who had passed their LL.B degree, could practice anywhere in the country because becoming a nun or a priest was not a profession but a calling from God.

The case arose after the Kerala Bar Council (KBC) refused to give a Sanad (= license to practice law) to some priests and nuns who had passed their LL.B. These nuns challenged this erroneous decision in the Kerala High Court but the KBC appealed against this decision in the Supreme Court which upheld the decision of the Kerala high court so that nuns and priests throughout the country could start practicing law after they passed the LL.B degree. There are a few priests who have secured their Ph.D in law but are wary of entering the dog-eat-dog competition within the courts.

Jessy Kurien held training sessions for Supreme Court employees on gender sensitization which is why she wrote over 400 books and articles on various laws, mainly those affecting women’s rights. This was why she decided to contest the SCBA elections for the post of member-executive so that she could serve women better. Tragically, her congregation objected to her contesting these prestigious elections which would have boosted her work for women’s rights.

But now she messaged all the SCBA voters saying she has withdrawn from the fray owing to objections from her congregation. She told another newspaper: “I was surprised to learn that the authorities of my congregation in Rome refused to permit me to contest the SCBA elections. The SCBA is not a political platform or a body from where I can derive monetary benefits. Canon law does not prohibit a nun or a priest to contest an election for an association of advocates.”

Hence, the decision of her congregation violates the very law which empowers them to become nuns and priests. Interestingly, some nuns hold the MBBS degree and some of them have even pursued the MD degree so that they are allowed to practice medicine. A few are products of St John’s Medical College in Bangalore. Sister Jessy wanted to contest the Lok Sabha elections on a ticket of a certain political party. Understandably, her congregation refused her permission on that occasion but the SCBA election is altogether different.

Jessy explained she received the message refusing her permission to contest the SCBA elections on May 5, three days after she informed the president of her congregation in India that she would be contesting. “Though I began to canvass a month ago, I officially sent an email to the president on May 2. I was present in Hyderabad that day and as per convention, before I left that city, I told the president about my travel plans to Delhi as well as about the election.”

Strangely, until May 4, she did not get any response until she returned to Delhi. Only one day later, she received a message from her congregation that said the:” Mother General and the council” were not in favour of her contesting the SCBA elections. This message devasted Sr Jessy Kurien who thought that contesting elections was part of her legal profession.

Thursday was the last day to file nominations to contest the SCBA elections. This was why this nun could not send an email requesting the Church to hear her out before making an informed decision with reasons. However due to the message she got at the last moment, she was unable to send an email to ask the managing council and the Mother Superior of her congregation to reconsider their decision.

So, her resolve to help women in distress by influencing policy decisions of the government of India has been brought to nought.

Olav Albuquerque holds a PhD in law and is a senior journalist and advocate at the Bombay High Court

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