Justice, but at what cost?

Since last year, every time Pinjra Tod activists Natasha Narwal and Devangana Kalita secured bail, the Delhi Police promptly rearrested them on new charges.

Published: 07th January 2021 04:40 AM  |   Last Updated: 07th January 2021 08:50 AM   |  A+A-

Image for Representational Purposes. (Photo | Amit Bandre/EPS)

Express News Service

Since last year, every time Pinjra Tod activists Natasha Narwal and Devangana Kalita secured bail, the Delhi Police promptly rearrested them on a new charge related to allegedly conspiring the anti-CAA NRC protests and Northeast Delhi riots, finally slapping them with the non-bailable Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act.

On December 8, the Delhi High Court gave the Delhi Police three weeks to file its response to a writ petition by Kalita who has sought for a copy of the video of the protests.

The matter is up for hearing today (January 7).

Handling the two’s case is akin to walking on hot coals, which is why their lawyer Adit S Pujari, 34, associated with Kapil Sibal’s chambers, refuses to comment on it.

The Independent Criminal Law Practitioner is also appearing for CPI (M) leader Brinda Karat seeking a registration of FIR against BJP leaders Anurag Thakur and Kapil Mishra over their alleged hate speech during the Delhi riots; and the All India Students’ Association (AISA) Secretary, Chandan Kumar, for alleged violence in the anti-CAA protests.

Simultaneously, he is representing a handicrafts salesman seeking a fair investigation into why his daughter allegedly jumped off the school terrace, and a lady trying to get the landlord charged with criminal negligence for not fixing a faulty water motor that electrocuted her husband. 

What connects this mix-bag of criminal and civil, high profile and ordinary cases is that Pujari is doing all of it pro bono.

“Only pro bono cases will get you media attention and get the courts to take you seriously,” Pujari remembers this advice from Sibal in 2015, who had spent two-and-half hours in court handling a pro bono case for activist Teesta Setalvad, and in the process, skipped four paid appearances amounting to Rs 60-70 lakhs.

Another role model is his first boss, Adv. Siddharth Aggarwal, who would work all night on a case whether it earned him zero, Rs 1,000 or Rs 1.25 lakhs for an appearance.

“I learnt from my early days that you shouldn’t differentiate financially on a case,” says Pujari, explaining that it was completely serendipitous how above pro bono cases came his way.

“Eighty per cent of my practice in 2020 ended up being pro bono. One case led to another. I also lost out on a couple of commercial clients. Had they not gone to other lawyers, I would have not got the time to do this much pro bono work.”

Pro bono: a selfless deal?

This Constitution Day (November 26), the Justice Ministry integrated the Nyaya Bandhu app iOS version on UMANG (Unified Mobile Application for New-age Governance) — an e-platform providing access to a range of e-Gov services.

On the app, disadvantaged parties can log in as ‘Applicants’ and connect to a database of pro bono ‘Advocates’.

The government pays a stipend and reimburses registered lawyers for expenses incurred on litigation, photocopying, travelling to different courts, etc., on cases facilitated via the app.

This setup leans more towards the legal aid (low bono) model, where lawyers get a tiny fee for their services.

But pro bono publicas, Latin for ‘for the public good’ is a pan-industry concept where a person volunteers their goods or services without a fee. In the legal industry, Article 39A constitutes both forms that stem from the will to serve the indigent or the marginalised.

However, pro bono is more altruistic than legal aid or low bono, as all legal expenses are borne from the lawyer’s own pocket.  Career-wise, it is a launching pad for junior lawyers to build their resume and an important qualifier for aspiring senior advocates.

Senior lawyers should do more pro bono work

Anyone at the bar who knows me will testify that where there is a cause involved, and you want a senior lawyer, I am probably the most accessible,” says Senior Advocate Rebecca John, who has done a fair deal of pro bono work apart from the entire gamut of criminal, corporate, and civil cases.

John is one of Priya Ramani’s lawyer in the #MeToo case against former Union minister MJ Akbar, and is quite vocal about the lack of women in judicial services.

Choosing to not comment on her cases but stress on equal rights, she says: “When the tectonic plates shift, there is an earthquake. When women begin to assert themselves as opposed to the established form of behaviour, there is bound to be a backlash. What must change are societal the workplace, at home, on the streets. The incidents of rape and molestation are increasing. Throw in caste equations and other such differentials, and you will find a great gap between what women aspire and what is ultimately given to them.”

If lawyers initially pick up cases on pro bono, but at a later stage ask for a fee, because the case has consumed so much of their time and money, “I don’t think it is morally wrong,” says John, adding, “But I hope more senior lawyers take up pro bono. With their wealth of experience and skills to counter difficult cases, they must extend their services particularly to important causes without charging heaven and the earth for it.”

Parveen Negi

Case by Case

is presumed that lawyers do high-profile cases on pro bono because they are publicity-hungry or have nothing better to do, observes advocate Aparna Bhat, who sought justice for acid-survivor Laxmi Agarwal after a 11-year trial. She states, “But how can you not help when you see people in a bad place and you are in the position of a little privilege? Just because people are not in the position to pay, doesn’t mean they don’t have rights. Laxmi didn’t deserve what happened to her. Ultimately, what she has turned herself into is complete credit to her and her ex-partner Alok.”

Bhat has waived off her fee for Hyderabad-based NGO Prajwala that filed a case against rape and pornographic content circulated on Internet intermediaries like search engines and social media.

Bhat founded the Rape Crisis Cell (RCC) for DWC, and had handled almost 11,500 cases on sexual assault and rape, completely pro bono. She was also court-appointed amicus curiae in the Muzaffarpur shelter home case.

However, doing a case for free doesn’t translate into laxity for giving credit where it’s due. Bhat did not get as much media attention during Laxmi’s trial as when she took Fox Star Studios to court for not giving her due credit in hand holding them through Laxmi’s trial to make Deepika Padukone-starrer, Chhappak (2020).

“Laxmi’s case took 11 years and involved significant expenditure that I supplemented by my other paid cases. I usually don’t ask for appreciation. I had not even asked for a signed contract. But there was this sense of arrogance/entitlement that I didn’t deserve a credit, which put me off.” Within a week of filing the suit, the Delhi High Court directed Fox Star to credit her in the film.

What appals Bhat is when the mighty take on the destitute.

“I did a case where an electric fitter’s hand had to be amputated due to the hospital’s negligence. The case went on in High Court for 11 years, after which he got compensated Rs 10 lakhs plus interest,” she says, adding, “But the hospital challenged the verdict in the Supreme Court, and engaged senior lawyers who would have charged an amount similar to the compensation amount per appearance. Finally the judiciary intervened, and he got Rs 18 lakhs.”

She and the high court lawyers on the case did not earn a single penny.

Gender Violence

Similarly Adv. Shubra Mendiratta who specialises in matrimonial, sexual assault and civil matters, admits she could pursue a lengthy case like the Bharti College Rape case (2010-17), because her husband, Adv. Sudhir was earning enough for both.

“If I had to manage household expenses as well, I wouldn’t have taken up that many pro bono cases.”

Shubra first felt the urge to help women in distress was in Class 10 when her friend was molested by the school principal. Shubra proceeded to become a DU student leader who “always actively participated wherever there was a call for agitation”, and went against her family — “they wanted me to choose a safe profession like teaching”— to join law.

Just when she started out as a lawyer, the 1987 Roop Kanwar sati case happened.

It rattled her enough to join the DSLSA, and take up divorce and maintenance cases for underprivileged women, and litigate ‘accident compensation’ cases for the marginalised at resettlement colonies in Mukherjee Nagar and Majnu ka Tila.

Since her appointment as DWC’s Rape Crisis Cell (RCC) in-charge in 2013, she has handled almost 10 lakh cases on female assault.

“My decision to do a pro bono case has always been emotional,” says Shubra pointing to the high-profile 2014 Uber Rape Case at north Delhi’s Inderlok area that she handled as the DCW Counsellor/Advocate.

“The girl’s family was quite well-off, and sent the girl to Australia for further studies. In fact, the father wanted to pay me after the conviction, but I refused. I had got emotionally connected, and felt the girl won’t be able to fight such a big company of global repute.”

Two pending cases worry her the most. One is of a boy molested by his teacher.

“In court, the boy and his father retracted their statements saying it was a misunderstanding. I hope on the basis of medical evidence that supports the boy’s initial claims, the teacher gets convicted.”

The second case is of court reader from Dwarka court who accused Additional District Judge PS Malik of sexual harassment.

“She has received threats to withdraw the case, and was falsely implicated in criminal cases by the said judge.” 

Her husband, Sudhir, who got 3,000 families relief after the 1984 Sikh riots, specialises in domestic violence and marriage laws since 1985.

In his case of Kamala Dass vs Chetan, the Supreme Court passed a law changing judgement in 2001 that an irretrievably broken marriage is not always applicable for grant of divorce in Indian society which views the institution far more traditionally and binding than the West.

His other case cited in arguments about the woman’s right to stay in her matrimonial home is that of Preeti Satija who was abandoned by her husband, and the mother-in-law has tried to evict her ever since.

“But we protected her in the High Court and ensured that decision was sustained in the Supreme Court. Now the matter is pending for a larger bench. Basically, our social system was created for better things but is misused. We need administrative reforms and new laws to protect women’s rights, and even educate the parents to not make their daughters compromise.” This includes laws for live-in relationships.

“But right now, courts in India give live-in relationships the trappings of marriage, which put the woman and her children in a lurch. Purpose of the law is to liberate the woman, not put shackles on her.”

Power of two

Sudhir had personally witnessed atrocities on women while growing up, which is why he dismissed his other career options — civil services, army, even an internal posting in RAW — for law. It is this social thought that brought Sudhir and Shubra together, who both now advise or assist with each other’s cases.

In the Hathras rape case, as the legal advisor to the All Indian Women’s Conference (AIWC), she went with the AIWC secretary on location to meet the rape victim’s family, while Sudhir was one of the many petitioners who filed a plea in the Supreme Court to transfer the case to Delhi stating a fair trial was not possible in UP, and requested CRPF protection for the victim’s kin.

“I am not an Advocate on Record (AOR), but Sudhir is and could file the plea. We wanted to access ground reality given the conflicting news reports on TV. Let’s see what comes out of the High Court. If there’s any grievance left, we’ll approach the SC,” finishes Shubra. 

One incentive to get more lawyers to take up pro bono is perhaps having a system where if the pro bono litigant wins, at least the cost of litigation ought to be awarded to him by the other side, feels Pujari.

“Especially in a civil case... a demonstrably false case. To stymie that, the cost of litigation should be imposed upon the frivolous litigant so that they know that if I am going to bother someone, and that person approaches a good lawyer, even if that lawyer takes it up pro bono, I’ll have to pay him eventually. The American and English legal systems have this thing where they direct costs in a civil suit, and the same can be considered in pro bono cases.”

Top Delhi lawyers on why they take up certain cases—criminal and civil, high profile and even the ordinary—on pro bono basis, and how they use their wealth of experience and skills to counter such cases


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