The Bar Council of India — the apex body of lawyers that regulates the legal profession — and a top confederation of law firms have both lodged protests with the ministry of law and justice over a recent move of the government to revoke a ban on foreign law firms in special economic zones.
What has irked lawyers is an amendment in the Special Economic Rules governing SEZs notified by the ministry of commerce and industries on January 3, 2017 that will allow multi-national law firms and possibly legal process outsourcers (LPOs) to set up shop inside SEZs. Earlier, legal services and accounting firms were excluded from the list of companies that could set up shop in SEZs.
The BCI will lodge a formal protest with the government next week while the Society of Indian Law Firms (SILF) has already met law and justice minister Ravi Shankar Prasad and objected to the development. “We will pass a formal resolution and lodge a protest. There are repeated attempts by the government to undermine the Bar Council,” BCI president Manan K Mishra told HT.
SILF has demanded withdrawal of the notification. The ministry of law and justice has been working on evolving a formula to allow foreign firms into the country and opening up the legal sector but without irking Indian lawyers.
“It should not pave the way for unregulated and backdoor entry of foreign law firms. We are for a rational and phased opening up of the sector and the first phase should be to liberalise the sector internally,” SILF President Dr Lalit Bhasin said. Currently, rules do not allow law firms to advertise or have a website.
After already strained relations with the judiciary, over the scrapping of the National Judicial Appointments Commission Act in 2015 and the alleged slow pace of filling vacancies in the high courts and the Supreme court, the government does not want to upset lawyers.
Sources said the law ministry has asked the lawyers’ bodies to give a representation listing their concerns that it can take up with the ministry of commerce and industry. The government’s declared policy is that it wants to liberalise the sector but in face of the opposition from local lawyers, it is not being able to commit to a time frame drawing criticism internationally.
Sarosh Zaiwala, founder of London based law firm Zaiwala and Company who had met law ministry officials as part of a British delegation seeking opening up of the sector blamed the delay on “a few high ups in the legal profession trying to monopolise it.” “Indian lawyers should shed this village mentality…the delay is denting India’s image internationally.”