The Unique Law School Coming Soon to Happy-Centric Bhutan
Lawyers and happiness -- an unlikely pairing? Not in Bhutan.
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.