Pro bono work in India

This guest blog is by Nabeela Siddiqui. She is pursuing her Master’s in Law from the Department of Legal Studies at University of Madras, India. She is also working on a project titled ‘Humara Kanoon’, under the supervision of Supreme Court Lawyer Avani Bansal at Avani Bansal Chambers (ABC). Lately, she also interned at AALCO (Asian-African Legal Consultative Organization) and the Supreme Court of India.

If you would be interesting in contributing a guest blog, please contact us at open-justice@open.ac.uk

In a society moulded by the practice of giving (‘sewa’, ‘nishkam karm’, ‘shramdaan’) and deep value systems interwoven in various forms, belief and faith, volunteerism is a part of living culture in India. Government programs since India’s Independence in 1947 have focused on creating national volunteering forums for Indian citizens. These programs centre on “Personality Development through Community Service.”

Pro Bono comes from the Latin expression “pro bono publico” meaning “for the public good”. Free legal aid and services in India is predominantly the directive of the National Legal Services Authority followed by State, District and Taluk Legal Aid Services authorities. This hierarchical set up therefore allows a wide presence of services throughout the country. However, the legal requirements grow diametrically with the given population growth, requiring significant contribution from the legal community. Pro Bono legal service as a concept has not gained much momentum in the country and remains more of an ad hoc, individualized practice lacking an institutional structure

The Constitution of India by virtue of Article 39 A directs the State to provide free legal aid to the poor and weaker sections of the society, to promote justice on the basis of equal opportunity. Followed by Article 14 and 22 (2) of the Indian Constitution, which guarantees equality before law. Also, the United Nations Sustainable Development – Goal 16 accentuates the commitment of States ‘to ensure equal access to justice for all’.  Keeping in line with these obligations and with a view to embolden pro bono legal services the Department of Justice has recently attempted to create a database of lawyers willing to provide their services to  litigants identified under Section 12 of The Legal Services Authority Act of 1987.

Indian non-profit leaders and development practitioners have often acknowledged gaps in operative organizational structures and service delivery processes as significant challenges. Many lawyers deliver poor and underprivileged clients with valuable legal guidance and support without seeking any professional fee. Unfortunately, this commendable practice has not received any deserving recognition. In many countries pro bono legal support has evolved as the principal means of providing free representation to indigent and underprivileged clients. But, in the Indian context some chief problems associated with the same could possibly, be –

  1. Time

Therefore, there is a need for:

  1. Flexi-pro bono opportunities to match calendars of Lawyers.
  2. Pro bono models which can be customized to meet the needs of the people.
  3. The biggest challenge for lawyers will be finding the right law firm and matching it with a charitable entity that requires their particular type of legal assistance.
  4. Rules governing the ethics of practice of advocates in India do not include a mandatory requirement for advocates to spend part of their time on pro bono legal services. Instead, pro bono services are recommended, or an ideal to aspire to.
  5. Making pro bono a part of people’s lives and daily culture.

Thus, the onus on coordinating these piecemeal efforts and formulating a comprehensive national policy on pro bono services, as well as expanding the range of pro bono services rests solely with the legal community and the Bar Council of India.

Therefore, recently the Union Law minister launched three schemes viz. Pro Bono Legal Service, Tele Law service and Nyaya Mitra Scheme.

  1. Pro Bono Legal Services – The objective is to encourage lawyers and legal professionals to provide pro bono legal services, to recognize pro bono legal work being provided by lawyers and legal professionals, and to create a database capturing vital information of lawyers for appropriate positions in the relevant field. An online application on the Department of Justice website to enrol advocates who are interested in providing legal aid has been launched. Any practicing Advocate, enrolled with a Bar Council, irrespective of their age is eligible to register.
  2. Department of Justice has partnered with NALSA National Legal Services Authority and CSC e-Governance Service India Limited for mainstreaming legal aid to the marginalised communities through Common Services Center (CSC). Tele-Law means the use of communications and information technology for the delivery of legal information and advice. This e-interaction between lawyers and people would be through the video-conferencing infrastructure available at the CSCs. The concept of Tele-Law is to facilitate delivery of legal advice through a panel of lawyers stationed at the state Legal Services Authorities (SALSA) and CSC.  The project initiates to connect citizens with lawyers through video conferencing facilities by the Para-Legal Volunteers stationed at identified 1800 panchayat.  The project would connect lawyers with clients through video conferencing facilities at CSCs, operated by para legal volunteers.
  3. The Nyaya Mitra scheme is aimed at reducing delays in cases across selected districts, with special focus on those pending for more than 10 years. A retired judicial officer, or an executive officer with judicial experience, will be put in charge of assisting those suffering due to judicial delays.

Apart from the above endeavours, in several high-profile cases, courts in India have called on senior lawyers to play the role of amicus curie, and have also called on lawyers to come forward to provide legal representation to the poorest. The most modern national law schools also have legal aid clinics, where law students offer assistance by providing preliminary legal advice. Therefore, law schools in India do have legal aid clinics but the major challenge is that there is a lack of an institutionalized approach towards clinical legal education.  Advocate Avani Bansal in her article, “Clinical Legal Education as a means to advance access to justice in India”, exceptionally points out the fact that most law schools have an adhoc approach towards legal aid clinics, the success of which depends largely on the enthusiasm of the faculty and the students.

Can you imagine what India will look like if each lawyer/ academician/ law students were employing the best organizational development practices to effectively attain their vision and mission? Also, alternatively, India’s social challenges would be met with an army of lawyers relentlessly rooting out social issues. Pro bono is an influential answer and offers a colossal opportunity to fulfil this dream. If fully recognized, it can boost the functioning effectiveness and build capacity of lawyers so they can play their development roles to their full potential. Most importantly, the case for pro bono is reinforced by the dynamic social and legislative context in India.

References

  • Section 12 in The Legal Services Authorities Act, 1987

 

  1. Criteria for giving legal services.—Every person who has to file or defend a case shall be entitled to legal services under this Act if that person, is— (a)a member of a Scheduled Caste or Scheduled Tribe; (b)a victim of trafficking in human beings or beggar as referred to in Article 23 of the Constitution;(c) a women or a child; 1[(d) a person with disability as defined in clause (i) of section 2 of the Persons with Disabilities (Equal Opportunities, Protection of Rights and Full Participation) Act, 1995 (1 of 1996);] 1[(d) a person with disability as defined in clause (i) of section 2 of the Persons with Disabilities (Equal Opportunities, Protection of Rights and Full Participation) Act, 1995 (1 of 1996);]” (e) a person under circumstances of undeserved want such as being a victim of a mass disaster, ethnic violence, caste atrocity, flood, drought, earthquake or industrial disaster; or (f) an industrial workman; or (g) in custody, including custody in a protective home within the meaning of clause (g) of section 2 of the Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act, 1956 (104 of 1956) or in a juvenile home within the meaning of clause (j) of section 2 of the Juvenile Justice Act, 1986 (53 of 1986) or in a psychiatric hospital or psychiatric nursing home within the meaning of clause (g) of section 2 of the Mental Health Act, 1987 (14 of 1987); or 2[(h) in receipt of annual income less than rupees nine thousand or such other higher amount as may be prescribed by the State Government, if the case is before a court other than the Supreme Court, and less than rupees twelve thousand or such other higher amount as may be prescribed by the Central Government, if the case is before the Supreme Court.] 2[(h) in receipt of annual income less than rupees nine thousand or such other higher amount as may be prescribed by the State Government, if the case is before a court other than the Supreme Court, and less than rupees twelve thousand or such other higher amount as may be prescribed by the Central Government, if the case is before the Supreme Court.]”