Swathi Sukumar, co-founder of iProbono India, speaks to Shiphony Pavithran Suri about the need for a committed judiciary that could help those marginalized by the systemic disabilities.
Q. What made you bring the pro bono initiative to India? What were the initial responses?
A. There is a crying need for good quality lawyers in India. We have chronic systemic problems including glaring inequality, poverty and discrimination. We had no doubt that committed lawyers could mitigate the hardships faced by people on account of these systemic disabilities.
As a litigating lawyer, I have the opportunity to observe how crippling the systemic barriers are in the judiciary. At the same time, there are several committed lawyers who would be happy to take on pro bono matters. iProbono’s aim is to bridge this gap and to build capacity with the civil society sector and with the legal profession to assist under -served causes and individuals.
Q. Do you thing India’s legal system belongs to an elite class? Is iProbono the answer to meet the needs of a democratic, progressive society?
A. iProbono aims to provide lawyers this opportunity and to be a window into another world. Ultimately, through interactions with civil society organizations and disadvantaged individuals, we hope that lawyers will play an active role in correcting systemic problems.
Q. How does iProbono encourage young lawyers?
A. iProbono works with lawyers at various levels of experience. We encourage young lawyers to be actively involved in all projects because they are the future of the legal profession and it is important for them to identify ways in which they can use their skills to further the causes of access to justice.
Q. Tell us about the composition of stakeholder’s who are part or such an initiative….
A. The main stakeholders are civil society organization who use our services; individuals who these organizations cater to; lawyers; law firms; in – house counsel at companies. We work with some very committed law firms, headed by proactive and dynamic partners, who have been instrumental to our success in India.
Q. How relevant is such a service for a country like India?
A. We have worked a range of projects, right from providing legal assistance to a rural call center providing employment to thousands of locals; setting up a panel of lawyers to represent children who have suffered abuse before the Delhi High Court and Supreme Court of India; provided ongoing legal support to a mobile crèche catering to children of construction workers; provided litigation assistant to the largest association of street vendors in India.
Q. How can students do pro bono legal work during law school years? Is there a financial constraint?
A. Students are a great resource for pro bono legal work, under the guidance of the member of faculty. A student who is involved in pro bono work during law school is more likely to be an effective and engaged pro bono lawyer, irrespective of the career path that they choose.
Q. Should law schools commit themselves to involve students to do pro bono activities?
A. Law schools should definitely commit themselves to involving their students in pro bono work. This is already being done at the various Indian law institutes through clinic programmes. At Columbia Law School, I was part of the Gender and Sexualily Law Clinic headed by Prof. Suzanne Goldberg. Under her guidance, we made representations to the US Congress; drafted a law on domestic partnership; also drafted amicus briefs; and filed asylum application for refugees. So I believe that students of law are a tremendous resource.
This interview first appeared in the print issue of Careers360 Magazine.