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A Case For Pro Bono

Chitranshul appeals to fellow lawyers to dedicate some time to legal aid.

“I think we may class the lawyer in the natural history of monsters.” – John Keats (c. 1819)
“Lawyers are ideological enemies of informal justice.” – Richard L. Abel

Need I say more?

Being a lawyer is the most thankless vocation, or maybe second only to being a policeman. Jokes on lawyers exist in a world where lawyers have not only fought for causes but are also responsible for bringing about societal change. Indian history is rife with eminent lawyers who shaped the nation. People like Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, Dr. Rajendra Prasad, Motilal Nehru, Sardar Patel, M.A. Jinnah and not the least, Mahatma Gandhi. However, lawyers today have come to be perceived as symbols of corporate greed and are believed to be at the rich man’s beck and call while the poor go without adequate representation. There comes a time in every profession when the need for change outweighs the luxury of complacency. That time is now.

Article 39A of the Constitution of India provides for equal justice and free legal aid:

“The State shall secure that the operation of the legal system promotes justice, on a basis of equal opportunity, and shall, in particular, provide free legal aid, by suitable legislation or schemes or in any other way, to ensure that opportunities for securing justice are not denied to any citizen by reason of economic or other disabilities.”

Further, Code of Civil Procedure provides that the State and Central Governments may make provisions for free legal services to those who have been permitted by the Court to sue as indigent persons. The Central Government also enacted the Legal Services Authorities Act, 1987 to constitute legal services authorities to provide free and competent legal services to people who do not have access to the same. Most recently, the Ministry of Law & Justice of the Government of India has initiated a commendable campaign to create a central database of lawyers willing to offer pro bono services to identify the right lawyer for pro bono service requests received by the Ministry.   However, while the Act and the recent steps taken by the Government enable to provide free legal services, are such services competent?

I admit that it may be unfair to ask that general question as there are excellent lawyers rendering legal aid services, but from my personal experience with legal aid work, I have come across horror stories of lawyers being callous and negligent in handling legal aid cases. The defence put forward by some lawyers is that they would rather focus on avenues which bring financial gains. To be fair, one cannot expect lawyers are struggling financially to give up a paying brief to focus on pro bono matters. But where are the lawyers who are financially secure?

The argument that I am trying to make here is that many of us who work are secure financially should come forward and enter the field of pro bono services. In my experience with legal aid work in the Delhi High Court, I know of only one lawyer who despite being a Partner at a big law firm gives his best to legal aid clients. I have known him to spend entire days in Court for a legal aid client. That’s a lot of billable hours. But, again, it is just one man.

I do not expect lawyers working with firms to dedicate their entire time to pro bono work. Certain firms may even be opposed to such dedication of time. However, I am not asking for too much when I say that even if you dedicate five hours a week to pro bono work, it will go a long way.

Be honest when you reply to this, but how many of you working in law firms or earning well independently feel a sense of purpose when you get up every morning? Or how many of you feel a real sense of accomplishment at the end of the day? If you do, then I am happy for you. If you don’t, then try rendering pro bono services to people who need them.

Save your soul while you can.

Chitranshul Sinha is an Advocate-on-Record at the Supreme Court of India.

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