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When Isha Khandelwal, 25, filed a discharge application for her client before the Juvenile Justice Board in Chhattisgarh’s Bastar district, she told the court staff that there were a few corrections in the previously submitted plea. A member of the court staff responded: “Those are not the only errors in your application. There are several language and grammar problems." They both smiled.

Hindi is the official language of courts in the state. In the last two years, Khandelwal and her colleagues at the Jagdalpur Legal Aid group, a non-profit that has been providing free aid to tribal communities in south Chhattisgarh’s five Naxal-affected districts, have realized that it is one thing to speak in Hindi and another to use it in legal documents. “Thank God, judgements are passed based on arguments and evidence, and not language. To write down legislations and arguments in Hindi, when the only language in which you have studied law is English, is tough," says Khandelwal.

Now, they have another battle to fight. On Tuesday, they got to know that the Bastar Bar Association has passed a resolution at its general body meeting prohibiting any lawyer from “outside" from practising in the Jagdalpur courts.

Khandelwal says they will challenge the order in the high court as well as the Bar Council of India. “We will continue to work. This is just another way of harassing us."

The group, referred to as Jag-Lag, was founded in 2013 by Shalini Gera (44), Parijata Bharadwaj (26), Rupesh Kumar (27) and Khandelwal.

Khandelwal, who is from Indore, got her degree from Delhi University’s faculty of law. Gera, who lived in the US for two decades, had been following Bilaspur-based lawyer and trade unionist Sudha Bharadwaj’s work and returned to India to work with her before going on to enrol at the law faculty in 2010; that is where she met Khandelwal. Rupesh completed his master’s in social work from the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (Tiss), Mumbai, and Parijata, after studying at the Symbiosis Law School, Pune, also did her master’s in social work from Tiss, a year after Rupesh.

After completing her degree, Gera started working with Sudha, who had been talking about the need for a legal aid group in Chhattisgarh.

“There are many people here languishing in jails for long years without bail, many are picked up on false charges, illegally detained and tortured. Someone needed to speak for these people. Rarely are professional lawyers willing or brave enough to do this kind of work," says Sudha.

The keeda of social justice, the realization of “blatant discrimination" and the desire to change the status quo was common to all four. Gera discussed Sudha’s idea of a group with Khandelwal and they decided to start one. Rupesh heard about the idea and when he told his professor at Tiss that he intended to join the initiative, he connected Rupesh with Parijata. The four met in Jagdalpur.

The group knew their work had to be free of cost or, as the Latin phrase goes, pro bono publico, shortened to pro bono (public good done for free).

While the work these lawyers have been doing may loosely be termed philanthropy, Khandelwal doesn’t want to use the word. “I don’t see myself helping these people. I work with them. I have something that they don’t. Zameeni ladai wo lad rahe hain, kanooni hum (they are fighting on the ground, we are fighting legally). But it is part of the same struggle, a struggle for a just society," says Khandelwal.

The group has been dealing primarily with Naxalism-related cases of villagers they believe have been accused falsely. Initially, they used the Right to Information Act to get details of those in jail. This helped them prioritize their cases—like people who had been denied bail, the longest-serving prisoners, those who hadn’t received legal aid.

According to a National Judicial Data Grid portal launched recently by the Supreme Court, 19.4 million cases are pending in district-level courts, excluding Madhya Pradesh and Delhi. The parliamentary standing committee on personnel, public grievances, law and justice (constituted on 31 August 2013), identified the major reasons as poor judge-population ratio, poor infrastructure, shortage of judicial personnel, and prolonged and costly litigation caused by procedures and lawyer interests.

Lawyer collectives that seem to be springing up in different parts of the country hope to do something about this last aspect, providing free legal aid to help those who have been denied justice.

“Twenty-four years after globalization, all Indian lawyers don’t want money. Some want to use their skills more meaningfully. Ambitions have become holistic. Not only do they want to be successful but they want to do work that is satisfactory," says Swathi Sukumar, India director of iProbono—a non-profit online network that connects civil society organizations in need of legal assistance with lawyers who want to use their legal skills for the public good.

Unlike several countries where you cannot qualify as a lawyer unless you put in a certain number of hours doing pro bono work, there is no such legal obligation on lawyers here. The Bar Council of India rules make pro bono work a moral obligation. In fact, Sukumar says that the idea behind iProbono was the lack of a pro bono culture in the country.

“Lawyers have always been powerful and the benefits of their services should be given equitably. Legal aid is only catering to a limited population. Only 2-3% of those who require legal aid are receiving it. The requirement in the country is much higher," says Sukumar.

Delhi-based Karuna Nundy, 39, who has been practising for 15 years, has done both commercial litigation and pro bono constitutional rights cases. Eight years ago, Nundy took up the Bhopal gas tragedy cases. In March, she won the “66A" case, in which the Supreme Court scrapped the controversial Section 66A of the Information Technology Act which prohibited sending of information of a “grossly offensive" or “menacing" nature through computers and communication devices.

“Given limited access to justice and patchy legal aid, ideally every lawyer should have a pro bono quota. In fact, we should not only begin a discussion on making pro bono mandatory but also create a structure to make it easier to do public interest work. For young lawyers wanting to do pro bono work, there should be mentorship programmes and fellowships," says Nundy.

Jharkhand, which borders Chhattisgarh, is also exploring the culture of institutional pro bono. In 2013, a group of young lawyers in Ranchi set up the Network of Advocates for Rights and Action (Nara), with the slogan “muft mein wakil (free lawyer)". The idea is similar to Jag-Lag’s: Tribals are often deprived of their rights and basic facilities because they don’t know the law and fear court costs. Nara deals with a range of cases—from people accused of being Naxalites, and those whose land has been grabbed, to forest rights, domestic violence, sexual abuse and trafficking cases. The group, formed with the help of the Jharkhand Organisation for Human Rights (Johar), started off by working on a fact-finding mission about “innocent" tribals locked up in jails. “If everyone in this world runs after money, who will do the work for those who don’t have money? You have to be blind to not see the obvious injustice around you," says Amit Kumar, 34, Nara coordinator.

Members of Nara
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Members of Nara

Up north in Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh, Apoorva Srivastava was in her second year in college when she joined the Association for Advocacy and Legal Initiatives (Aali) as an intern. Now 25, she has been working with Aali for seven years. “If you want to see change in the world around you, you need to be within the system and work at the grass-root level. When you see what is happening on the ground, you want to be a part of the change," says Srivastava.

Aali, formed in 1998, is a feminist legal advocacy and resource group of 28 women (social workers and lawyers) that works on women’s issues. “Women are mostly economically dependent on men and what if these men are perpetrators of violence on these women? The least we can do is to take off the burden of paying the lawyers’ fees from their shoulders," says Srivastava.

While these groups are focusing on pro bono work, senior lawyers have been taking up some pro bono cases along with their regular workload. As a senior lawyer, who requested anonymity, says: “Removal of any funding and any political mandate gives you (the freedom of) choice. If you are not associated with an organization and not working for money, you can take up cases you really care for."

Jag-Lag has been working in Jagdalpur for almost two and a half years. Rupesh moved on after a few months, Parijata has shifted to Mumbai, but a large portion of the group’s 108 cases have come to them in the last six months. This summer, Jag-Lag also got 12 interns. “There is a lot of scope for legal work in places of conflict and since it is uncharted territory, it is only young lawyers who can try it out," says Gera.

Of course, these groups too need support. In Jag-Lag’s case, that support has come in the form of senior lawyers funding monthly fellowships. In the past, it has received funding from a legal non-profit, the Human Rights Law Network, among others. “We have many different initiatives across the country supporting young lawyers who work for the poor," says Colin Gonsalves, senior Supreme Court advocate and founder of the NGO. Senior lawyers like Vrinda Grover and Jawahar Raja have helped Jag-Lag with legal advice.

Senior Supreme Court advocate Rajeev Dhawan says funding such initiatives is important. “Lack of funds shouldn’t be the reason why lawyers don’t do such work. Private funding is the only answer for such initiatives to sustain. This sort of committed presence at the grass roots has to be there in places where it is required the most. Senior lawyers earn a lot and the least they can do is support young lawyers who are doing civil liberty cases," says Dhawan.

Khandelwal and Gera have received anonymous threats, police complaints have been lodged against them—and their practice is now under threat. But sitting inside their office-cum-apartment, with its bare floors and walls and bare minimum plastic furniture, they say people need to spend some time in places like Bastar to understand the reality of the world beyond the privileged lives many of us lead in cities. “The criminal justice system is just a small casualty of the political situation. We might fail but even if we just make a dent, raise a question mark, it is enough," says Khandelwal.

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