Depression can be Classified as Serious Illness amid COVID-19 Pandemic: High Court
Ahmedabad: The Gujarat High Court has recently observed that in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, Depression can be classified as Serious Illness. With this, the court directed the Vallabhbhai National Institute of Technology to set aside an earlier direction, where the college had cancelled the registration of a student for failing to appear in the Semester examination and obtain the required earned credits.
Further observing that the student failed to apply before the Institute on medical ground within due date because of his depressive tendencies, the High Court bench comprising of Justice N.V.Anjara noted, "In the facts and circumstances of the case and more particularly in the context of the currency of the pandemic period, the depressive state of mind and the depression created in the petitioner student, can be classified as serious illness."
The court also criticized the stand of the Institute which doubted the medical certificate of the student and mentioned, "The stand of the respondent Institute to doubt is insensitive and departs from the facts stated in the letter of the parents fortified by the certificate of doctor."
"Approach of sympathy is not the rule of law, yet the law has to be benevolent to sub-serve the interests of justice, wherever the facts and circumstances so justify and demand," observed the Court in the context of the case.
The petitioner student is pursuing B.Tech under the Vallabhbhai National Institute of Technology. He got admitted to the institute after qualifying his 12th standard examination with 85% marks and thereafter clearing the JEE examination.
However, the Academic Review Committee of the Institute on September 18 decided to remove the student from the course on the account that he could not earn 25 credit at the end of the second semester.
The student has submitted before the court that during the lockdown, the mental health of the student deteriorated and he reeled under depression from January, 2020 and it reached its peak in May-June 2020.
It was further submitted that the petitioner student even conceived suicidal thoughts at regular bouts. For these compelling reasons, the student failed to appear in the examination which was conducted online by the Institute.
Apparently, as the student is introvert by nature, he failed to convey his feelings even to his parents. When the parents tried paying fees for the third semester, they came to know on September 29 that the student was removed from the Institute.
Following this, the parents wrote to the Institute several times requesting to show mercy and they urged that if the student was given any chance, he would make up the deficiency.
It was on December 25, 2020, when the parents wrote to the Institute for the last time along with the doctor's certificate dated December 21, 2020. "As per the Psychologist, our son was in huge mental stress since January 2020 which aggravated to its peak in May/June 2020 and even suicidal thoughts were continuously coming in his mind. Now, we really feel that the condition of the mental stress of our son affected his studies and that's why he was not able to score the minimum required marks as defined by the Institute, for passing 1st year B.Tech," read the letter by the parents of the student.
The doctor's certificate attached with the letter mentioned that the student was diagnosed with "severe depressive episodes with suicidal ideation currently in partial remission. His problem started in Jan. 2020, reached its peak in May-June (2020) and now decreased in severity and for that he is put on appropriate treatment."
When the student moved to Gujarat High Court seeking relief, the court via order dated 23rd April, 2021 had permitted the student to appear in the supplementary examination which was scheduled in the first week of May, 2021. The court noted that the student cleared the supplementary exams of both first and second semester.
The counsel for the petitioner submitted before the court that it was due to mental illness; the student failed to fulfill the requirement in Regulation 7.3 and was not able to make an application on medical ground before or during the end-semester examinations.
On the other hand, the Institute contended that the students are bound by the Regulations for the B.Tech. Programme and that they are to be applied with uniformity to all the students. The Institute further clarified that the Regulations did not permit to make any special exceptions and thus the action taken against the student under Regulation 10.3 (a) was justified. As per the said regulation the student failed to complete 25 earned credits at the end of the second semester.
The Institute submitted that initially the student only obtained 11 earned credits and after failing to pass the examination, the student didn't appear in the corresponding supplementary examinations held in February, 2020 and August, 2020.
It was further argued on behalf of the Institute that the case of the student on the medical ground could be governed by Regulation 7.3 which made it mandatory to make an application prior to the last date of the examination and no such application was made.
The institute further contended that even during the period from January 2020 to March 2020, despite staying in the hostel, the student didn't report about his mental illness. There was a long gap between the illness and the medical certificate issued by the doctor and thus the certificate was also doubted, contended the institute.
To make his case, the counsel for the petitioner relied on the Apex Court judgment in Thaper Institute of Engineering & Technology v. Gagandeep Sharma, where the top court had held that the court would not normally interfere with the prescribed standards especially when such standards were intended for improving the academic standards.
After listening to the contentions, the High Court bench noted that as per the Regulation 15.3 and 15.4,
"15.3 Students who are unable to appear in the semester-end examination due to some compelling reason such as serious illness or other special circumstances will be given II grade (on medical grounds) and NA grade (on non medical grounds) and will be permitted to appear in a supplementary examination to be conducted as scheduled by the institute.
15.4 Students who have failed in one or more courses in the end semester examination of a semester, will be permitted to appear only in supplementary examinations as scheduled by the institute and to be conducted preferably before the commencement of the next semester. The original grade will be modified to a new grade (AA to FF) based on the performance in the supplementary examination."
At this outset, the Court noted,
"Thus, Regulation 15.3 read with Regulation 15.4 speak about a student who is unable to appear in the examination on account of compelling reason and serious illness is mentioned as compelling reason. On the medical ground, such student is allowed to appear in the supplementary examination. Only to be recollected, the petitioner student has appeared in supplementary examination in view of the interim order and has cleared both the semesters earning the minimum credit marks."
"The reason why the petitioner could not appear in the regular semester examination, has been amply spelt out in the request communications sent by the parents, including the communication dated 25th December, 2020 quoted in paragraph No.3.3 above. The petitioner suffered strokes of depression during the pandemic and due to his introvert nature, withdrew himself from education and academic activities, not informing even his parents," further noted the Court.
In this context, the Court referred to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic and noted,
"The depressive cycle which the petitioner suffered was during the period of COVID-19 pandemic itself. It was a period of wide-spread despondence. It is reasonable to believe that the situation brought about by the pandemic created an adverse effect on the tender-mind of the petitioner, who disengaged himself from the studies. The ground advanced by the petitioner could be viewed as genuine as there is nothing to disbelieve the same."
Further criticizing the Institute for doubting the medical condition of the student, the Court observed,
"The stand of the respondent Institute to doubt is insensitive and departs from the facts stated in the letter of the parents fortified by the certificate of doctor. The reason given by the petitioner has to be appreciated in the special circumstance of pandemic period."
The Court clearly mentioned that the student failed to apply under the medical ground on time as he was suffering from depression.
"It is the very reason of depressive tendencies developed in the mind of the petitioner during the pandemic, which prevented him from applying on the medical ground under the said Regulation. In the facts and circumstances of the case and more particularly in the context of the currency of the pandemic period, the depressive state of mind and the depression created in the petitioner student, can be classified as serious illness," noted the court.
Further mentioning that the "law has to be benevolent to sub-serve the interests of justice," the bench directed the Institute to reconsider its decision of cancelling the registration of the student and undertake the exercise of arriving at a fresh decision.
Thus, setting aside the decision of the Academic Performance Review Committee in cancelling the registration, the court asked the Institute to pass fresh order in relation to the case of the petitioner student so that he can continue his studies in the course of B.Tech, "which shall be guided by the discussion, observations and findings in this order, within fifteen days from the date of receipt of the present order."
To read the court order, click on the link below.