The Centre for Asian Legal Studies emerged from the humblest of beginnings: a single course in Japanese Law taught by Professor Malcolm Smith in 1980. Over the next decade the course offerings expanded, as did the Centre's compliment of faculty.Professor Stephen Salzberg imbued the program with a sense of identity and purpose, as well as practically working to establish protocols for visiting faculty and students. Professor Carl Herbst added a course in Chinese Law, and when Professor Ian Townsend joined the faculty in 1989 he became the Founding Director of the Centre. Programs for the study of Asian Legal Systems again expanded with the arrival of Doctor Pitman Potter, and the development of an introductory course in Asian Legal Systems. With so many pathways for the study of Asian law, unifying the programs and creating the Centre for Asian Legal Studies made sense: "[UBC] is one for the world's top Asian studies universities," said Professor Townsend-Gault, "we wanted to make it clear that the law school was contributing to that."
The beginnings of the Centre were supported by Law Foundation of BC, as minutes from the Library Committee from February 1980 indicate that a grant was received in support of the Japanese Law Programme.
The Centre for Asian Legal Studies would become the largest group of academics teaching and researching Asian legal issues in Canada, as well as a Canadian hub for legal scholars, including academics, judges, and practitioners, visiting from Asia.