New Delhi: The Bar Council of India, or BCI, after initially opposingthe entry of foreign law firms into the country, and then debating the idea for a year, is considering a calibrated approach premised on a “formula of reciprocity”.
Law firms in countries such as the UK, the US, New Zealand, Singapore and Australia have expressed interest in entering the Indian legal services sector.
BCI is the regulatory body that lays down the standards of professional conduct for lawyers as also the standard of legal education in the country.
“We are still undecided on this. We have chalked out some terms and conditions on the entry of foreign firms,” said BCI chairman Suraj Narain Prasad Sinha. “We will not take a final decision till a give-and-take formula with foreign jurisdictions is finalized.”
BCI plans to discuss and settle terms and conditions on the entry of foreign law firms at its meeting this month, Sinha added.
In September 2007, the Union law ministry circulated a note proposing liberalization of the legal services sector in the country in line with provisions of the World Trade Organization’s (WTO) General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS), to which India is a signatory.
In a resolution passed two months later, BCI opposed the proposal saying the move would adversely affect Indian lawyers.
But it added that BCI was open to a dialogue with bar associations of other countries to look into the “principle of reciprocity in this subject and ascertain the detailed procedure of the reciprocal arrangements and restrictions imposed for Indian lawyers to practise in foreign countries”.
Law minister Hansraj Bharadwaj then, in a written reply in the Lok Sabha, said a decision on the entry of foreign law firms would be taken “after considering the views of Bar Council of India in the best interest of the legal profession”.
BCI has since held talks on the issue with its counterparts in other countries, such as the Law Society of England and Wales in the UK. In May, a delegation led by the BCI chairman visited the UK to meet with that country’s minister for justice, Bridget Prentice, to deliberate on the entry of UK law firms into India.
Talks have also been held with equivalent bodies in the US, Australia and New Zealand to come up with a workable formula that would ensure entry of Indian lawyers and law firms into these countries.
Lalit Bhasin, president of the Society of Indian Law Firms, an association of top law firms in the country which has opposed the entry of foreign law firms, said unilateral agreements or memorandums of understanding between BCI and its foreign counterparts would not help in paving the way for foreign firms till the law ministry comes up with a firm policy in this regard and makes certain legislative amendments.
“This is like putting the cart before the horse. An amendment is also needed to the Advocates Act that bars foreign lawyers from practising here.”
The Union law secretary, the highest-ranking bureaucrat in the law ministry, could not be reached for a comment despite repeated attempts.
Meanwhile, a 13-year-old legal challenge against the entry of foreign law firms is scheduled to come up before the Bombay high court on 8 December. The proceedings have reached the final leg and the two sides are expected to wrap up their arguments by the end of the year.
The petition was filed in 1995 by Lawyers Collective, a legal services provider that works in areas of public interest, challenging the practice of three foreign firms—the US-based White and Case Llp. and Chadbourne and Parker Llp., and the UK’s Ashurst Morris Crisp Llp.—in India.
The three firms had set up liaison offices in the country in the early 1990s after they secured licences from the Reserve Bank of India. The offices were, however, shut after the firms received a reprimand from BCI.