Legal landscape for pro bono services in Pakistan
Akhund Forbes, Karachi
Legal framework for pro bono work
The Legal Practitioners and Bar Councils Act 1973 serves as the foundation of legal practice in Pakistan. The Pakistan Bar Council, along with four provincial bar councils and the Islamabad Bar Council (Federal) are established under the Act. They are responsible for regulating the admission of advocates to the legal profession, maintaining rolls of advocates and overseeing legal practitioners’ ethical conduct.
The provincial Bar Councils play vital roles in assisting the Pakistan Bar Council in its regulatory functions. They are responsible for admitting advocates to practice before subordinate courts and the High Court, maintaining rolls of advocates for their respective jurisdictions and removing advocates from these rolls when necessary. All advocates in Pakistan must adhere to the rules of professional conduct and etiquette prescribed under the Pakistan Legal Practitioners and Bar Councils Rules 1976 to maintain ethical standards throughout the country.
Under the section 9(2) of the Legal Practitioners and Bar Councils Act, the Pakistan Bar Council is mandated to provide free legal aid and specialised services for the promotion and enforcement of human rights. To fulfil this obligation, the Pakistan Bar Council established the Free Legal Aid Rules 1999, which created national, provincial and district-level committees for legal aid. The Central Free Legal Aid Committee handles cases at the Supreme Court and federal level, while the Provincial and District Free Legal Aid Committees provide representation in High Courts and district-level proceedings, respectively. These committees maintain a panel of lawyers willing to offer pro bono services or work at reduced fees, and they set maximum legal fees for different levels of the judiciary.
Furthermore, in 2011, the Law and Justice Commission of Pakistan established the District Legal Empowerment Committee (Constitution & Functions) Rules 2011, which aim to enhance legal aid services for deserving litigants. The committee provides financial assistance to eligible litigants to cover professional fees for lawyers, court fees and process fees. Funds for this committee are allocated through the Government of Pakistan’s Access to Justice Development Fund. This initiative provides an incentive for pro bono work, as procedural fees related to litigation often discourage lawyers from offering their services for free.
Significantly, the Legal Aid and Justice Authority Act 2020 aims to provide ‘legal, financial and other assistance for access to justice to the poor and vulnerable segments of the society in criminal cases and for matters ancillary thereto’. This Act empowered the Government of Pakistan to establish a Legal Aid and Justice Authority, which is currently operational. The affairs of this authority are managed by a Board of Governors and operate under the guidance of the Government of Pakistan. This Act also outlines the process of applying for legal aid, the assessment of eligibility and the provision of financial or other assistance to individuals charged with criminal offences. Additionally, it prescribes a code of conduct for panel advocates and volunteers and establishes a Legal Aid and Justice Authority Fund to finance its operations.
Pro bono organisations
In addition to the institutional efforts discussed above, several government-funded organisations, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and domestic law firms play a crucial role in offering pro bono legal services. NGOs such as the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan and the Asma Jahangir Legal Aid Cell focus on providing assistance to victims of human rights abuses, especially women, children and minorities. Other NGOs, such as Community Help Community, Norwegian Refugee Council Pakistan, Rights Now Pakistan and the Society for Human Rights and Prisoners Aid, extend support to refugees, asylum seekers and internally displaced individuals in Pakistan.
The legal framework, in tandem with institutional efforts, sets the stage for a robust pro bono culture among legal practitioners in Pakistan. The recent enactment of the Legal Aid and Justice Authority Act 2020, represents a significant step towards ensuring access to justice for the poor and vulnerable segments of society. By offering greater incentives, facilitating procedures and raising awareness regarding pro bono work, legal practitioners can fully realise the potential of providing free legal services and reap the benefits, while also promoting equitable access to justice in Pakistan. This can also help law firms meet their environmental, social and governance goals.
 Legal Practitioners and Bar Councils Act 1973 https://pakistancode.gov.pk/pdffiles/administrator4068b39bc9eebedce40baf56a335243d.pdf accessed 22 January 2024.
 Pakistan Legal Practitioners and Bar Councils Rules 1976 https://pakistancode.gov.pk/pdffiles/administrator006d8e1bfde45871ddef6937f29faae7.pdf accessed 22 January 2024.
 Pakistan Bar Council Free Legal Aid Rules 1999 http://pakistanbarcouncil.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/12/135-143-...-Free-Legal-Aid-Rules.pdf accessed 22 January 2024.
 Sahar Iqbal, ‘Leveraging Pro Bono Services for ESG Advancement in Pakistan’s Legal Sector’ (International Bar Association, 2 June 2023) www.ibanet.org/leveraging-pro-bono-services-for-ESG-advancement-in-Pakistan%E2%80%99s-legal-sector accessed 22 January 2024.