Pro Bono in India in the Pandemic: A Challenge for the Development Sector

by Protiti Roy-Shardul Amarchand Mangaldas and Co.
Monday, 6 February 2023 08:05 GMT

The Constitution of India, under Article 39 A, directs the state to provide free legal aid to the poor and marginalised sections of society, and to promote justice based on equal opportunity. The Indian government has recently launched various schemes, such as Pro Bono Legal Services, Tele-Law and Nyaya Bandhu to encourage pro bono legal provision. While India does not currently have any minimum pro bono requirements for lawyers to maintain their licences, Shardul Amarchand Mangaldas and Co. (“SAM Co.”)  is one of the few full-service law firms in the country with a dedicated team for pro bono services. Our firm also has a social development practice with committed talent, energy, and resources to work in diverse initiatives.

SAM Co. advises donor foundations, intergovernmental organisations, UN bodies, social enterprises, and domestic and international charitable organisations under a wide range of legislation relevant to the development sector. This includes laws governing foreign contributions, corporate social responsibility rules, and tax laws to facilitate the creation, funding, operationalisation and functioning of the development sector in India on a pro bono basis.  We also advise clients on a broad set of sectoral issues ranging from laws governing violence against women and children, to access to low cost energy in rural districts, cross-border human trafficking, sale of acid, and rights of journalists, among others.

The onslaught of the coronavirus pandemic caused a sudden shift in the way that grassroots NGOs functioned on a daily basis. The reduced ability to conduct programmatic work during lockdown led to NGOs spending more time looking inwards, revising and updating their workplace policies and regulatory compliance status. One NGO, whose programmatic work was centred around access to technology for young girls in rural areas, reached out to us to review and revise their internal policies on prevention of sexual harassment at the workplace. Another organisation that primarily worked in the field of access to alternative education asked for assistance in filing for registration under the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act, 2010 (“FCRA”). Others, involved in the organisation of shelter homes for children suffering from cancer, sought assistance in changing the privacy and confidentiality terms on their admission forms.

Coupled with the challenges of the pandemic, the development sector in India also had to deal with the issue of amendments to the FCRA in 2020. These changes, among other things, capped the usage of foreign contribution for administrative expenses at 20% of annual receipts, and only allowed foreign contributions to be received in accounts with the State Bank of India. This led to multiple NGOs requesting advice on restructuring their internal operations. SAM Co. assisted NGOs with pro bono assistance on the classification of expenses, restructuring programmes, grant management and setting up new corporate entities to meet the revised compliance requirements of the FCRA.

SAM Co.’s commitment to pro bono service offerings is based on the understanding that the focus on delivering a positive impact needs to extend beyond clients and include the communities we live among. The firm’s commitment to public welfare and social responsibility has helped us broaden our own professional experience and expertise. Over the years, SAM Co. has developed an in-depth perspective of the functioning and operation of the development sector both nationally and internationally, driving us to constantly assess regulatory changes in light of the ever-evolving challenges faced by the sector.

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