The University of Tartu was the first institution of higher education in the Baltic area during the 17th century. Its forerunner, a gymnasium in Tartu, which was established on a broad academic base, including professorships in theology, law and medicine, was converted into a university in 1632. It was intended to be a university of Western European standards and it followed the model of Uppsala University. The primary aim of Academia Gustaviana, which comprised four faculties (theology, jurisprudence, medicine and philosophy), was the advancement and dissemination of learning in the local Swedish provinces and the preparation of highlyqualified state officials from among the local population.
During the initial period of the university (1632–1710) attention was mostly paid to the teaching of civil law, its principal source being Roman law. Over the years, an increasingly important part was played by Swedish law.
The first professor of law at the University of Tartu was Doctor Heinrich Hein who lectured on both Roman and Swedish law. There were no lectures delivered on either the history of law in Livonia (Livland) or the law in effect in the province at the time. Similarly, it was not considered necessary to acquaint the students with other legal systems that were in force in Estonia and Livonia (Livland), e.g. Lübeck Law, widely adopted by towns. The fact that the Faculty ‘s curriculum did not include instruction in the numerous particular laws which had been developed by the Baltic Germans furnished the latter with a good reason for studying at German universities. As a result, the number of students in the Faculty of Law remained relatively small.
At the Academia Gustavo Carolina (1690–1710), only one professorship was created for teaching law, the professor being required to teach both Swedish and Roman law. In addition, this professor was assigned private instruction in international law. This change in curriculum was brought about by the remarkable progress made in the field during the period. Grotius and Pufendorf had laid the foundation for the concepts of natural law and international law. At the University of Tartu, it was necessary for the explication of Swedish and Roman law to be based on natural law.
In 1802, the University was re-opened at Kayserliche Universität zu Dorpat. The Faculty of Law included five professorships: Roman and German law (i.e. private law); current and customary law, politics, history of law; provincial law and law practice in Livonia (Livland); provincial law and law practice in Estonia and Finland; professorship extraordinary of provincial law of Courland (Kurland).
After the re-establishment of the University at the beginning of the 19th century, the first professor of the Law Faculty was Johann Ludwig Müthel who specialised in Livonian provincial law. Friedrich Georg von Bunge, a former student of the University of Tartu, was one of the outstanding figures of the Law Faculty between 1822 and 1842. As the professor of Livland, Estland and Kurland law, he became a pioneer in research in the history of Baltic law. Other prominent law specialists of the time included E. Osenbrüggen, professor of criminal law, J. Engelmann, professor of civil law and A. Reutz, professor of Russian law. The jurists in Tartu took an active part in codifying the legislation of the Russian Empire in the commission of M. Speranski, in preparing the Code of Provincial Law of the Baltic provinces, as well as in the work of the commission for the Russian court reform of 1864. From the second half of the 19th century, a number of world-famous researchers in international law worked in Tartu, e.g. Professor A. Bulmerincq whose works contributed to the foundation of up-to-date codes of international law and Professor C. Bergbohm, known for his criticism of the natural school of jurisprudence.
Between 1889 and 1895 the University of Tartu underwent a reform which mainly consisted in a partial application of the provisions of the 1884 all-Russian university statute and a transition from German to Russian as the language of instruction. As a result, changes were also introduced into the structure of the Faculty of Law. At that time several prominent lawyers worked at the University of Tartu, e.g. V. Grabar, a specialist in international law, M. Dyakonov, professor of the history of law, and A. Gulyayev, professor of Roman law.
In 1919 the University of Tartu became a national university with Estonian as the language of instruction. The years 1919–40 were undoubtedly significant for the Faculty of Law. The University became the main focus for knowledge of legal matters for the country as a whole. Before 1919, Estonians had studied law here and at other universities in the Russian Empire as well as abroad, but only a few had become teachers. Among them, F. Martens, professor of international law, was most widely known internationally and won wide academic recognition. The first Estonian professors of the Law Faculty were J. Uluots, who dealt with civil law and general problems of jurisprudence, A. Piip, professor of international law, and N. Maim. By the end of the 1930s, the staff of the Faculty of Law consisted mainly of Estonians.
The period of 1919–1940 laid the foundation for legal writing in the Estonian language, national legal science and development of the national legal staff. With the imposition of the Soviet rule and violent incorporation of Estonia into the Soviet Union in 1940, the natural development of the Faculty of Law of the University of Tartu that had followed the European tradition ceased. Free juridical thought had to be reduced to fit the narrow and dictated frames of the totalitarian state.
During the Soviet period lawyers of the Tartu State University, although working under severe ideological pressure, were involved in research and legislative work. Directly before Estonia regained its independence in 1991 the Faculty of Law prepared the Development Plan for Legal Education and Legal Science on the basis of the necessity to create an Estonian national legal order. The main theses of it were published in the law journal Eesti Jurist (Eesti õigushariduse tulevikust. On the future of Estonia’s legal education. – Eesti Jurist, 1991, No.1, pp. 10–17).
After Estonia regained her independence in the beginning of the 1990s, the Faculty of Law faced the ambitious task of creating conditions for the development of legal science and academic education in law based thereupon that would correspond to the requirements of the democratic civil society and free market economy. The Faculty of Law set the objective to develop an institution that would perform scientific, educational and cultural public functions and safeguard the communication on a par with similar institutions of the world. The Faculty of Law has set the priority to conduce to the development of legal scientific thought that would take into consideration the unifying trends related to the globalisation processes, while not losing sight of its irreplaceable role in safeguarding the development of the Estonian national legal science.
In order to fulfil the aforementioned objectives, large-scale institutional and substantive reform had to be implemented. The first one covered the modification of the structure of the faculty – institutes of public law and private law and the corresponding professorship (chairs) were created. Further efforts concerned safeguarding the retraining of teaching staff and obtaining of new instructors. Substantive reform comprised all areas of public and private law without any exceptions. The curriculum had to be entirely reorganised and research capable of international competition had to be ensured. Together with the revised curricula a new system of degree studies, involving master’s and doctorate study, was introduced in the Faculty of Law.
By the year 1994, the major part of the Development Plan had been implemented and this caused its supplementation and amendment. During the spring term of 1994, the development strategies of the Faculty were upgraded and specified and a new version of the Development Plan for the Faculty was prepared (the Commission of the Development Plan of the Faculty elaborated it in April–May 1994 and the results were submitted to the Rector of the University of Tartu on May 24th, 1994).
Considering the fact that by the year 2000 the major part of the aforementioned Development Plan had been implemented and that the development of the statehood and society of Estonia required new approaches and the Faculty was confronted with new objectives, the new Development Plan was elaborated for the Faculty of Law for the period 2000–2005 and it was adopted by the meeting of the Faculty Council on October 24th, 2000 and approved by the University Council. Upon creation of the Development Plan, the opinions and recommendations of the leading Estonian justice institutions and associations were considered.
The Faculty of Law has not been alone in its efforts – there has been co–operation with many leading European universities; of those, Universities of Münster, Helsinki, Uppsala and Glasgow could be mentioned as the most important ones. The EuroFaculty that was opened in 1993 in all Baltic States has had a remarkable role in restructuring the Faculty of Law. The EuroFaculty has been created by the Council of the Baltic Sea States and its purpose is to support local faculties in implementation of reforms in the area of legal, economic and political science.
It is also inevitable to note that after the re–establishment of the independent Republic of Estonia, the Faculty of Law of the University of Tartu has acquired an active role in the execution of the law reform. Since 1991, the teaching staff of the Faculty has been participating in the process of legislative drafting; almost fifty draft Acts have been prepared with the Faculty staff involved as the heads or members of working groups.