The Journey of Pro Bono in Nepal’s Legal Landscape

February 2024 | NEPAL

At a recent international conference, a friend from Sri Lanka asked me a casual question: “You have been working for more than four years at iProbono; maybe you have some first-hand experience on how one calculates the pro bono hours in litigation practice in Nepal?”  In the middle of that busy room, full of conversations and lively exchanges, I found myself at a loss for words. How, indeed, would that be done? I gave her the best answer I could at the time – that legislation in Nepal is more focused on legal aid, and we are yet to institutionalise pro bono practices. Our conversation moved on, but her question stayed with me. It was a stark indication of the gap in knowledge around pro bono work in Nepal and even in South Asia. The conversation took me back to my time as a law student, when  I struggled to find resources related to pro bono work in the Nepalese legal system. I also wondered if there had been a move towards institutionalising pro bono work in the country in recent years. 

In my research, I found that there is a global trend towards mainstreaming pro bono legal work, largely due to the globalisation of legal practice and increased international consensus about fundamental human rights. As a result, individual law practitioners, law firms, non-profits, and corporates are increasingly prioritising pro bono work as part of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) initiatives. 

One of the most widely used methods for such CSR initiatives is by providing pro bono direct legal services and litigation to those in need.  iProbono used this model in India by identifying the need for sustainable legal representation to children who have survived abuse. In addition, there are initiatives working towards democracy building and rule of law, legal research and policy advocacy. Some initiatives are also working on disaster relief. For example, a delegation of law firms working pro bono led by the US-based firm Reed Smith travelled to Haiti following the 2010 earthquake in the country. Their aim was to conduct a fact-finding mission into the surge in gender-based violence after the disaster. Reed Smith attorneys also identified and represented individual candidates seeking humanitarian parole and other U.S. immigration relief.

There are also examples of for-profit organisations or law firms working through their pro bono practices to directly support international human rights and humanitarian work. Companies including Accenture, Caterpillar, and Merck, in partnership with Baker & McKenzie and the Public Interest Law Initiative (PILI), developed a collaborative cross-border approach to address humanitarian issues. The resulting program united nearly 70 lawyers in 11 countries, all working to support PILI. In Nepal, this initiative helped advocate Sarmila Shrestha in her efforts to reduce socio-economic and sexual exploitation of women at the workplace. Based on a public interest case filed by Shrestha, the Supreme Court of Nepal issued a decision decrying such harmful practices and directed the enactment of legislation to address the issue.

While this is a commendable attempt, it led me to question whether organisations striving solely for profit and frequently facing condemnation for unethical practices would engage in such philanthropic gestures without having any legal obligation to do so in Nepal. Is there an ulterior motive of ‘face-saving’ and building goodwill? If so, what will be the quality of the pro bono services provided by these organisations? All of this leads to an important question facing the legal sector in Nepal: is it time to govern and regulate pro bono through legislation? I believe it is. Having a suitable legal framework is an important step toward institutionalisation, especially in a nation like Nepal, where the concept is largely understood by observing international development and practices. 

For lawyers in Nepal, pro bono is a nascent but rapidly expanding idea. There are a few efforts to recognise and regulate pro bono work. An important one is the Nepal Bar Association’s Pro Bono Directive issued in 2018. This directive explains the process of accessing legal aid and pro bono services through the Nepal Bar Association. However, there are still gaps in this document. For example, there are no mandatory provisions for a practising lawyer to engage in pro bono work. The directive does not explain in detail if and how pro bono support is different from legal aid services, which are regulated by the Legal Aid Act 1997 and the 1998 Rules, and administered through the Central and District Legal Aid committees in close connection with the Bar Association. The directive also does not tell us how to calculate pro bono hours, which is the question I could not answer for my friend.  

Another such effort is the National Network of Pro Bono Lawyers, comprised of advocates working in the human rights sector. In 2022, this network organised the first national conference of pro bono lawyers. The event culminated in a nine-point declaration calling on various stakeholders to enhance the efficiency of pro bono lawyers.  

In my opinion, along with regulation and governance, it is necessary to educate the legal community and professionals about what pro bono work means and how it is different from legal aid. There is also an urgent need to spread awareness among the general public about the kind of pro bono support they can access and how it can make a difference in their lives. 

Since I started practising as a lawyer seven years ago, I have seen new strides in Nepal’s embrace of pro bono work. But there is still a long way to go before we can think of it as mainstream. We as lawyers must take inspiration from international practices and trends to legally recognise pro bono work going beyond a mere moral obligation, which it currently is. In addition, we must inspire young attorneys and members of the legal fraternity to participate in pro bono work. It is a crucial component of expanding access to justice.

Bandana Upreti, Program Officer, Nepal.

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