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Bringing the law to your doorstep

October 26, 2016

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KARACHI: Lack of legal consul, even one that is misdirected, has been a constant woe of many individuals and start-up companies the world over. iProbono, a non-profit online network connecting civil society organisations, aims to rectify this unfortunate occurrence in Pakistan, after a resounding successful endeavour in neighbouring countries, so it held a workshop at T2F on Tuesday.

The workshop titled ‘Lawyers for Change: Workshop on strengthening civil society and promoting access to justice’ was an attempt to galvanise and mobilise support to organisations that need legal consul but may not be in a position to access or afford it. Representatives of iProbono, Mariam Faruqi andSalman Zaidi, were at hand to introduce to an intimate gathering of lawyers and activists the onus of the organisation and its success stories in countries such as India and Bangladesh.

Mariam Faruqi is a lawyer and director of iProbono’s South Asia regional projects based in Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Before this she was iProbono’s Pakistan country representative. She spoke about iProbono’s plan for Karachi, after building up an impressive presence in Lahore, and Islamabad, where it was launched in April 2015. “We wish to widen our network of lawyers. Our main issue in Pakistan has been lack of ground presence; we have an international presence but we really need more people who are educated, working here and want to do pro bono work in Pakistan,” she said.

All iProbono requires is that “lawyers,academics, barristers, corporate law firms, in-house counsel, law students/graduates, members of the judiciary and social welfare lawyers” in Pakistan sign up and volunteer their pro bono services on a diverse range of projects, from environmental law, transactional legal assistance, policy research, litigation, and even advocacy support.

Capacity building of young lawyers is also on the agenda, as well as conducting training sessions. A fellowship is also being offered which will allow the ground presence of the organisation to be more potent.

Salman Zaidi, who has been working with iProbono in an advisory capacity since its launch in Pakistan, was also at hand to provide a glimpse into the inner workings of the organisation in a contemporary Pakistani context.

A researcher and consultant working on conflict, violence and public policy in Pakistan, Zaidi spoke about the necessity of holding conversations “that do inform the future in Pakistan, especially keeping in view the landscape of Pakistan that is frequently affected by violence and conflict”.

When the team started scoping for iProbonoin Pakistanlast year, they reached out to NGOs with an interest in finding out their challenges. “It emerged that they had very similar concerns to any new startup or any corporate organisation with regards to taxation, acquisition of property, human resource, even contracts to be looked at. Fairly mundane problems.”

And that is where the resource of iProbono steps in, armed with a network of lawyers to match them to the work.

With more crackdowns on NGOs in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, the interactive workshop explored the many problems faced by NGOs, legal or otherwise, and the increasing inspection they face in the current political climate. According to Faruqi, iProbono has been a catalyst in improving the conditions of many. “We have already brought out a manual for NGOs in India on basic things such as how to register under the new laws etc.”

However, what iProbono does not do is interfere in the area of work of such organisations. Zaidi spoke about how, with his experience of working in Islamabad, he has noticed that NGOs have gotten more corporatised in the last 10 years. The recent environment in Pakistan, he also remarked, has had a negative impact on NGOs.

“There is much more scrutiny. However, what area or domain the NGO works in, that is what we cannot help in. It is not our expertise and we do not intervene on that front,” he said.

With iProbonotargetingdifferent strands of lawin its functioning, one audience member did point out a major exception in excluding the lower courts within its framework. Zaidi however, elaborated on the constraints the organisation faces in this regard.

“Some of the sectors we are very happy to get into, such as environment, have not many obstacles. In a place like human rights law or something more securitised, like related to national security where NGOs operate too, we are not sure we want to get there just yet as that space is very volatile and we cannot insure security for the lawyers working within it.”

Published in Dawn October 26th, 2016