Entry of Foreign Law Firms in India: SC Reserves its Judgment

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February 02, 2018

The Supreme Court’s hearing in the contentious issue of entry foreign law firms and lawyers in India reopened on Wednesday.

In the instant case before the Supreme court, the Petitioners Global Indian Lawyers have challenged the Bombay High Court’s verdict in the case of Lawyers Collective v. BCI passed in 2009 wherein the Bombay High  Court had stated that the expression ‘ to practise the profession of law’ in Section 29 of Advocates Act, 1961 is wide enough to cover the persons practising in litigious matters as well as non- litigious matters and, therefore, to practise in non-litigious matters in India, the respondents (foreign law firms) were bound to follow the provisions contained in the 1961 Act. In the case, the High Court was of the view that as the foreign law firms were not enrolled under the Advocate Act, 1961 they could not open liaison offices in India.

Other verdict which is elementary in the aforesaid context is Madras High Court’s ruling in 2012, wherein the Court had restrained foreign law firms and lawyers from practicing as an Advocate in India. However, it stated that foreign lawyers could visit India for a temporary period to render legal advice. The BCI in the case has appealed against the said judgment of Madras High Court and prayed that foreign lawyers and law firms shall not be allowed to render legal advice in seminars or conferences or even participate in arbitration proceedings.

In the case now taken up by the Supreme Court, the Petitioners have argued on the following points:

  • That the Advocate Act, 1961 applies to individual lawyers and not law firms.
  • That the Advocate Act, 1961 does not prevent an Indian lawyer from becoming dual qualified.
  • That the expression practice the profession of law under the Advocate Act, 1961 implies only Indian Law.

In view of the contentions forwarded by the petitioner, the two-Judge Bench of the Supreme Cpourt raised an intriguing concern while remarking- “If we bar the foreign law firms and lawyers would that not stop India from becoming the hub of activities? Even the Madras High Court has taken exception to the Bombay High Court judgment in respect of international commercial arbitration services on a fly-in and fly-out basis?”

The hearing in the matter has ended yesterday with the Supreme Court reserving its verdict on the issue.

Here it would be pertinent to mention that in July last year, the Ministry of Law and Justice had filed a plea with the Supreme Court for urgent hearing on the issue of entry of foreign lawyers and law firms in India.