The Unique Law School Com­ing Soon to Happy-Cen­tric Bhutan

Lawyers and hap­pi­ness -- an un­likely pair­ing? Not in Bhutan.

Bhutan Times - - Editorial - (Cour­tesy: Craig and Marc Kieburger for Huff­in­g­ton Post)

In Fe­bru­ary, the king of Bhutan signed the royal char­ter for a school of law -- the very first in this tiny Asian na­tion. This law school will be unique. It will ex­per­i­ment with new meth­ods for train­ing lawyers that en­gage them in the coun­try’s drive for greater pros­per­ity through hap­pi­ness.

Bhutan en­vi­sions a legal sys­tem that is about more than pros­e­cut­ing crimes and su­ing com­pa­nies be­cause your cof­fee was too hot.

Legal re­form is part of Bhutan’s care­fully-man­aged and decades-long tran­si­tion from ab­so­lute monar­chy to 21st cen­tury democ­racy. In 1971, the pre­vi­ous king -- fa­ther of the cur­rent monarch -- turned eco­nomics on its head by propos­ing a new mea­sure­ment for a coun­try’s pros­per­ity: Gross Na­tional Hap­pi­ness (GNH).

The gov­ern­ment of Bhutan has placed GNH at the core of all its poli­cies, from so­cial pro­grams to na­tional bud­gets. Now it’s ap­ply­ing the prin­ci­ple to its legal sys­tem.

His­tor­i­cally, the king was the law, ap­point­ing judges and act­ing as the fi­nal court of ap­peal. How­ever, most mi­nor is­sues were re­solved through an in­for­mal sys­tem of com­mu­nity jus­tice. Vil­lage heads acted as ar­biters, and cases (both crim­i­nal and civil) were heard and de­cided with the par­tic­i­pa­tion of the en­tire com­mu­nity. There were no lawyers, and plain­tiffs and de­fen­dants alike usu­ally rep­re­sented them­selves.

As Bhutan mod­ern­ized and cre­ated a for­mal jus­tice sys­tem, the coun­try needed trained lawyers and judges. With no do­mes­tic law school, as­pir­ing Bhutanese law stu­dents got their ed­u­ca­tion abroad in In­dia, the U.K. or North Amer­ica. Ac­cord­ing to Michael Peil, a re­spected Amer­i­can law pro­fes­sor, they re­turned thor­oughly im­mersed in west­ern tra­di­tions of ad­ver­sar­ial, puni­tive, win­ner-take-all law.

“They had been thor­oughly schooled in a sys­tem that said ev­ery case has a win­ner and a loser. Win­ning is about destroying the other side,” Peil lamented.

Peil said the coun­try’s for­eign-trained lawyers lost sight of Bhutanese com­mu­nity law, which em­pha­sizes restora­tive jus­tice, and ne­go­ti­ated set­tle­ments with mu­tu­ally ben­e­fi­cial res­o­lu­tions. His de­scrip­tion re­minds us of the tra­di­tional com­mu­nity jus­tice prac­ticed by many Canadian abo­rig­i­nal peo­ples.

In 2013, the Bhutanese gov­ern­ment of­fered Peil a unique chal­lenge: build a law school from the ground up with a tai­lor­made cur­ricu­lum merg­ing for­mal west­ern law with Bhutanese ideals of com­mu­nity law.

The new cur­ricu­lum will ap­ply a dif­fer­ent method for teach­ing law. Peil ex­plains that west­ern law stu­dents learn by study­ing past cases. “They start by learn­ing from ad­ver­sar­ial sit­u­a­tion and that sends the mes­sage that all law comes from dis­putes.”

In con­trast, Bhutanese stu­dents will learn law through prac­ti­cal ex­er­cises and sim­u­la­tions that force them to de­velop their own so­lu­tions, and to present mul­ti­ple op­tions for re­solv­ing a case, like ne­go­ti­at­ing a set­tle­ment in­stead of launch­ing a law­suit.

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