Challenges for pro bono in India
The term pro bono publico, or put more simply, “for the public good”, means working without charging a fee. Traditionally, pro bono lawyers in India devoted their entire practice to helping people without charging fees. Today, there seems to be a more balanced approach: a law firm or an individual lawyer can devote time to earning profits as well as devote part of their time to charitable work.
Corporations that earn more than 50 million Rupees (around $750,000) net profit have a mandatory charitable obligation - known as corporate social responsibility (CSR). The Ministry of Corporate Affairs (MCA) has made it mandatory for companies with earnings over that amount to spend 2 per cent of their three-year average annual net profit on CSR activities in each financial year once their earnings have reached this threshold.
Law firms have no obligation to make a charitable contribution. For a law firm, charitable work is completely voluntary. The problem is that – unlike with CSR – this can make it difficult to structure a solid pro bono policy. Firms are often faced with the problem of how many hours should be devoted daily, monthly or yearly to pro bono services. Another hurdle is finding and vetting an organization that is really in need of legal services.
LawQuest’s Pro Bono Policy
At LawQuest, our philosophy is to always have a pro bono project in the pipeline. We have a voluntary system where a suitable project is emailed around our team and whoever has the time, experience and interest can spend part of their day working on the charitable project. Our firm tends to lean towards issues around female empowerment and education. As the structure of the firm has changed over the past decade and continues to change, we take on pro bono work accordingly.
Our first project was Nazdeek, in which we fought for the rights of tea estate workers.
For another project - Sols ARC – we drafted a white paper analyzing the legal system and educational policies for children with special needs. The white paper also examined India’s international obligations under human rights laws to protect and advance the rights of children with special needs.
LawQuest also takes on more straightforward projects, such as drafting a memorandum of understanding for the Prakruthi Foundation, when it changed board members.
Depending on who has the time to devote to charitable projects (attorneys, interns or paralegals), we have to match skills, interest and free time.
The future of pro bono in India looks very positive. The biggest challenge for lawyers will always be finding the right law firm and matching it with a charitable entity that requires their particular type of legal assistance.
Fortunately, however, through organizations like TrustLaw, Lex Mundi Pro Bono Foundation and i-Probono, a lawyer can be free from the responsibility of finding organizations that need their services and instead use their precious billable hours actually doing legal work for those who cannot otherwise afford it.
“It is not, what a lawyer tells me I may do; but what humanity, reason, and justice, tell me I ought to do.” - Edmund Burke