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The Unique Law School Coming Soon to Happy-Centric Bhutan

04/02/2015 12:33 EDT | Updated 06/02/2015 05:59 EDT
BOISVIEUX Christophe via Getty Images

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 tailor-made 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. It may not sound that novel but this approach means students are learning a different philosophy of law -- that law is not all adversarial disputes, and every case does not have to have a winner and a loser.

To ensure its future lawyers are aligned with Bhutan's national values, all students will be required to take classes in environmental and development law, and how the law exists to promote sustainability, prosperity and happiness. A trail-blazing concept for a tiny nation.

Even the campus infrastructure at Bhutan's law school must meet progressive standards, with buildings designed to be green and energy-efficient, and sections of the campus grounds protected as natural preserves.

Ground will be broken for the first buildings this spring, and Peil plans for the school to welcome its first class in 2017. In the long term, Peil hopes tides will reverse and western legal students will come to Bhutan to learn a different philosophy of law.

From Matlock to Law and Order to any courtroom reality show, our culture portrays law as a sports field, with two teams competing at any cost to win it all. It's all about individual interests -- us versus them.

Bhutan's new law school will be a fascinating experiment to discover if changing the way we think about law can actually help create a better, more cohesive society. It's an experiment all western nations need to watch closely.

Brothers Craig and Marc Kielburger founded a platform for social change that includes the international charity, Free The Children, the social enterprise, Me to We, and the youth empowerment movement, We Day.

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