The issue of foreign lawyers being permitted to work in India has been contentious since the idea first came up 20 years ago. But Chief Justice of India (CJI) J S Khekar’s recent statement on ‘opening up the legal sector for foreign lawyers and firms’ is expected to make the debate much wider and fierce.
The CJI has supported the entry of foreign lawyers and foreign firms in India ‘on the reciprocal basis’.
‘Indian Lawyers Competent Enough’
According to the Times of India, speaking at a seminar organised by the Indian branch of International Law Association, CJI said, “Competition will bring excellence in the profession. Indian lawyers are not less competent than foreign lawyers. So the apprehension that foreign lawyers would snatch business of India lawyers is not correct. In fact Indian lawyers are capable of snatching jobs of foreign lawyers. But reciprocity should be insisted in allowing foreign lawyers.”
CJI Khehar, believes that opening up the legal sector would mean exchange of ideas between the legal fraternities of diverse background, “with the advent of globalisation, the legal profession in India has undergone a major shift during the last two decades. Economic liberalisation has given an opportunity of constant interaction with foreign law firms and an international clientele,” quoted NDTV.
Liberalizing the Legal Sector
The legal sector is one of the few areas which is yet to be liberalized in India. As a part of its’ drive to align the Indian policies related to various services with the global practices, Narendra Modi government initiated efforts to allow foreign direct investment (FDI) in certain services in the legal sector in 2016.
The idea is to open up the sector to foreign players through the revamp of ‘The Advocates Act’ of 1961 and make India an arbitration hub, like Singapore. India has close to 1.3 million lawyers, who are regulated by the Bar Council of India (BCI) and the state Bar Councils. A large number of these lawyers are feared to be fake and BCI recently launched a drive to verify the credentials of practicing lawyers in India. The number of practicing lawyers is expected to come down to 55-60% after the completion of the verification process.
The Draft Proposal
In 2016 the central government floated a draft note after discussions with various government departments — including law, commerce, industry and finance — and the Bar Council of India. The BCI agreed to the frame rules initially, but later withdrew from the meeting convened by the law ministry, due opposition from the lawyers across the country.
The draft proposed to allow foreign lawyers and firms to open offices in India after registering with the BCI and paying fees of $25,000 (£18,850) for individuals and $50,000 for firms, according to a report by an Indian legal journal and digital portal, Legally India. But post September 2016 the reform process has been delayed.
‘Draconian, anti-lawyer & undemocratic.’
In a parallel development, the Bar Council of India rejected the Law Commission of India’s 266th report, calling it “draconian, anti-lawyer and undemocratic.”
Quoting the BCI Secretary Srimanto Sen, the Indian Express reported that “the BCI will formulate its own recommendations regarding amendments needed to the Advocates Act and present it to the government, in consultation with the state bar council and various bar associations.”