India’s much-vaunted ‘road map’ for the liberalisation of its £2.6bn legal services market has inched closer to reality following a high court ruling in a case concerning magic circle and international firms.

In a ruling yesterday, the Chennai high court gave foreign firms the right to practise in India on a ‘fly-in, fly-out’ basis when advising clients on non-Indian law. They may also act in commercial arbitrations and be involved in legal process outsourcing (LPO) companies, the court ruled.

However, the court again confirmed that under the country’s Advocates Act 1961, British solicitors are not permitted to practise domestic Indian law - litigation or non-litigation - in India.

The ruling arose from a petition filed by Indian lawyer AK Balaji asking the court to take action against foreign law firms and lawyers ‘illegally practising’ in India. Balaji cited the Advocates Act, which says that only citizens of India with a law degree from a recognised Indian university can practise in the country. Practitioners must also be enrolled in a state Bar Council, he said.

The only exception to this rule was where there was a reciprocal arrangement between two countries, allowing each country’s lawyers to practise in the other; there is no such reciprocal arrangement between India and the UK, Balaji said.

Other reasons cited by Balaji to bar British solicitors included their treating the profession as a commercial enterprise, whereas in India the law was considered a ‘noble profession, intended to serve society, and not treated as a business venture’.

The high court ruled that there is no bar for foreign law firms or lawyers to visit India for a temporary period on a ‘fly-in and fly-out’ basis to give legal advice regarding their own or other foreign law systems. There is similarly no bar against acting in international commercial arbitration or providing a LPO service.

However, it ruled: ‘Foreign law firms or foreign lawyers cannot practise the profession of the law in India either on the litigation or non-litigation side, unless they fulfil the requirement of the Advocates Act 1961 and the Bar Council of India Rules.’

Law Society president John Wotton welcomed the ruling: ‘This clarification will enable English and Welsh lawyers to meet a clear need from Indian clients, who operate in an increasingly globalised economy, for advice on foreign law, delivered in India on a "fly-in - fly-out" basis. Our members have an immense regard for the professionalism of our Indian colleagues, and look forward to working more closely together with them on cases which have an international dimension.’