Early days for pro bono in India

Friday, 22 July 2016 11:54 GMT

* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Pro-bono legal services in India operate at two levels. The first is the mechanism set up under law - part of the constitutional mandate to provide for free legal aid to ensure that no one is denied access to justice. The second level is more ad hoc, whereby lawyers and law firms take up causes for clients for a reduced fee or for free.

In 1987 the Legal Services Authorities Act was enacted to fulfill the constitutional mandate providing for free legal aid. The act resulted in the setting up of Legal Services Authorities across the country. These institutions streamlined a mechanism whereby eligible categories of people (women, persons with disabilities, certain disadvantaged castes and others from low-income groups) could access free legal services.

When applications for legal representation are made, a lawyer is assigned to each applicant who fulfills the criteria. In theory, the system has been successful but there have been complaints about its efficacy and the quality of legal service available.

At the second, more ad hoc level, it is up to the discretion of individual attorneys or law firms if they want to provide pro bono legal services. People find out about lawyers who are willing to do this by word of mouth, and there is no clear way to streamline the service.

But the practice of pro bono law is still at a nascent stage even among top law firms and very few have a systematic way of accounting for time they or their partners spend on pro bono work. Organisations such as Trust Law play an important part in identifying and presenting the issues that require legal expertise.

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.

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.

But 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.