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Law companies now joining in pro-bono activities, legal eagles offering free services to needy

Thursday, August 29, 2013

MUMBAI: In popular perception, a lawyer is often painted as a villain: someone who gives you confusing advice and then overcharges for it. But that image needs to change. Pro bono work - offering legal services to the poor and indigent at nil or token recompense - is turning popular among top lawyers in India.

 

That the best-known lawyers take time out for such work from their busy schedules is commendable, especially since there is no legal obligation on them, unlike in New York, where you cannot qualify as a lawyer unless you put in 50 hours of pro bono work.

The Bar Council of India rules make pro bono work only a moral obligation, which can easily be evaded if a lawyer is busy.

Pro bono work is done by lawyers in their individual capacity. Harish Salve, for example, will take up any brief for free if he is convinced about the case or the client's innocence, says a lawyer on the condition of anonymity.

Fali Nariman did two cases - which chipped away at the Executive's role and gave the Judiciary a superior say in judges' appointment - pro bono, as did former high court judge Mukul Mudgal in the Sunil Batra case on the rights of prisoners.

Sometimes, these luminaries choose to defend the indefensible. As senior counsel Raju Ramachandran did, when he represented Pakistani terrorist Ajmal Kasab against Maharashtra.

Maverick lawyer Ram Jethmalani also courts unpopular causes shunned by others, for free. He defended Delhi University lecturer SAR Geelani in the Parliament attack case. Thanks to Jethmalani, the Delhi High Court and Supreme Court acquitted Geelani, overturning the death sentence awarded by a trial court.

Jethmalani also fought for Dr Binayak Sen, the doctor-turned activist, who was accused of sedition for being sympathetic to Naxals, and got him bail.

For Chandubhai Mehta, the managing partner of Mumbai-based Dhruve Liladhar & Co, the plight of two Muslim widows was an eye-opener.

Law Firms Now Joining in

The two Muslim widows, aged 28 and 32, approached Mehta along with their minor children when they lost their husbands in the Century Bazaar blast in Mumbai in 1993. The widows had been abandoned by their wealthy in-laws. Mehta took up their case pro bono, and won.

In fact, the third-generation lawyer was so moved by their plight that he still doesn't charge any widow who comes knocking at his plush Nariman Point office. He later fought to clean up the clogged Mithi river, which flooded Mumbai during the 2005 deluge.

Senior counsel Anil Diwan did the Jain Hawala case for free while Soli Sorabjee did the Bommai case on President's Rule pro bono.

Rajya Sabha MP and senior BJP leader Arun Jaitley has represented quite a few colleagues for free, even though some would have bitterly sparred with him inside Parliament. As a matter of convention, senior counsels don't charge any fee for assisting the courts. Law firms have now belatedly woken up to the windfall goodwill gains to be had from such work.

AZB & Partners, a leading law firm that advises corporates on big-ticket M&As, works closely with the poverty alleviation projects of Grameen Foundation, Dell Foundation, Acumen Fund and the IFMR Trust.

"We do not quantify the time or the monetary value of pro bono work done at AZB," says co-founder Zia Mody. "But full credit is given to associates for this, and it is counted towards their billable hours."   And Cyril Shroff, managing partner of country's biggest law firm Amarchand Mangaldas & Suresh A Shroff & Co, feels strongly that his firm's "privileged position" must be used for greater good. "The firm is involved in several non-paying assignments, including policy advocacy," he adds.

Senior partner Vandana Shroff mentors young artists by displaying early works and teaching them the art of negotiating the commercial world. Khaitan and Co, a firm with 400-odd employees, which has represented leading industrial groups such as the Birlas, the Singhanias and the Modis, helps Saaf India, a social enterprise tackling the issue of waste generated on Indian trains.

"We don't look at getting mileage out of such activities. It's about giving back to society. There is a sense of satisfaction that cannot be explained," says senior partner Rabindra Jhunjhunwalaa.

Khaitan helped Naveen Jindal fight for the right of every Indian citizen to hoist the national tricolour.

Some blue-blooded law firms have helped the government wrest a good bargain in complex bilateral or multilateral treaty negotiations.

"We (have) advised the government in a number of WTO disputes, assisted several ministries in drafting, (helped) review policies and law, and represented individuals and groups in court," says Rajiv Luthra, founder of Luthra & Luthra Law Office. "We have also provided advice and assistance to many not-for-profit and charitable organisations on different aspects of law, including setting up a presence in India."

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