Pakistan High Court Advocate Khushbakht Shah Jillani is the youngest lawyer in Pakistan to build a career independently in litigation pertaining to family laws, domestic violence, human rights and women’s rights advocacy. In this interview with Asia Law Portal, she explains her practice, her involvement in Pro Bono work on behalf of domestic violence victims, her advice for law students interested in a career in legal advocacy, and Adal Aur Sehat Project
You maintain a practice in Family Law, which includes a Pro Bono practice focused on domestic violence issues. Tell us about your practice and what led you to this focus.
In family law, I plead cases on behalf of mothers wanting the custody and guardianship of their children; and also deal with issues related to divorce settlements, financial security. For cases on domestic violence, my focus is twofold. Firstly, to empower women who are, in the majority of the cases victims of violence, by ensuring that the perpetrator is behind bars. Secondly, to help develop the legal jurisprudence. For example there is no judicial precedent, which defines verbal and psychological abuse, and through my pleadings I want to bring this to the fore – because mental wellbeing is the most neglected area both in the Pakistani society and the Pakistani legal jurisprudence.
You’re also Founder & CEO Adal Aur Sehat Project, a part of which is a legal and health awareness podcast. Tell us more about this
Adal Aur Sehat Project is an organization, which aims to spread legal and health awareness amongst the masses in Pakistan and push for socio-legal reform through its various initiatives. I have come to realize through my legal practice that more often than not cases tend to have a significant health dimension which is blatantly ignored; an example is the associated psychological impact in domestic violence and rape cases . In order to give due importance to this interplay of health and law, I created the Adal Aur Sehat Project. Through the project’s legal and health awareness podcast, we have successfully launched 50+ episodes. It has now expanded to include initiatives such as the fellowship program and the legislation and policy clinic.
This project is unique because in Pakistan while there are tech platforms which provide legal awareness, there are no platforms where doctors come and speak about health issues. The health concerns in the Pakistani society are rising and it only made sense to introduce a platform which could provide access to information which otherwise is not easily or freely available. In our health podcasts, we touched upon matters such as the child and adolescent mental health, hypertension, breast cancer, oral cancer, depression and anxiety, sleep apnea, obesity in teenagers, menstrual health, female and male fertility/reproductive health and so forth. Through these podcasts, the individuals can make an informed visit to the doctors and have a more refined solution to their health problems.
I also understand the responsibility we have on our shoulders with regards to the information we give out. It is always our utmost priority to provide information from authentic and credible sources and it is because of this reason that we bring specialists to speak to us. The doctors who have spoken to us so far are heads of departments, consultants and surgeons at Pakistan’s biggest hospitals while some practice in the US and the UK.
With Adal Aur Sehat Project more than a year old, we are introducing various programs under its banner to improve both standard of discourse, and legal and health education in Pakistan. For example, we recently introduced a Fellowship Program to train and mentor students in legislative drafting and policy making. The program received an enthusiastic response and out of the 210 students who applied – only 12 students from all across Pakistan were selected, who subsequently proposed legislative amendments to the Protection of Women Against Harassment at the Workplace Act 2010. We completed the three-week training program with a graduation ceremony at the offices of Pakistan’s top law firm namely Haidermota & Co. with Chief Guest being, Barrister Jahanzeb Awan, Partner at Haidermota & Co., and Special Guest of Honor Ms. Karuna Nundy, Advocate Supreme Court of India.
Through our initiatives we want to create opportunities and access for students and at the same time enhance their skillset by providing them the guidance and mentorship.
You’re also a lecturer at L’ecole Karachi. Tell us more about this.
L’ecole Institute for Advanced Studies (“LAS”) is my alma mater, and it is a matter of pride that I now teach there. I teach Legal Systems and Methods as well as Company Law to first year and final year students respectively. I greatly value my relationship with the students and actively seek to engage with them for discussions on law reform, policy and politics both inside and outside the classroom.
Through my teaching, I am trying to improve the quality of legal education in Pakistan by introducing newer and pragmatic methods of approaching a course. Not only do I touch upon the technical and complex legal concepts but also introduce the students to the practical side of the course -for them to understand how a particular concept plays out in an actual courtroom or in a non-contentious matter. I was recognized by the Director of the Undergraduate Programs at LAS as amongst the two best lecturers for the year 2020-2021, and was described as someone whose ‘teaching style exhibits Academic Freedom which is crucial to developing legal minds’.
I am also cognizant of the fact that I am teaching upcoming legal minds and leaders, therefore I ensure that I equip them with necessary skillset so that they contribute meaningfully to legal jurisprudence as well as development of the society. Moreover, understanding the varying capacities of each student and unique challenges that they face, I try to mould the classroom environment to cater to each individuals needs.
You were recently shortlisted as a nominee in the Ministry of Law’s First Women in Law Awards. Tell us what led to this nomination
The category that I am nominated in is ‘Rising Star of the Year’ in the Ministry of Law and Justice’s 1st WomenInLawAwards which is a part of its historic public-private initiative to increase women’s representation in law with support from Australian High Commission Pakistan, British High Commission, Group Development Pakistan and WomenInLawPk.
The repressive culture in the legal profession, there is a settled perception that one must attach their identity to a law firm to be successful. Contrary to that, I became an independent legal practitioner quite early in my career and took my first high stakes case on a civil service matter at the age of 23. I represented the government officers in the 6 connected appeals and won the case with the right strategy. Afterwards, I broadened my practice to include family laws and domestic violence laws matters. While I built my litigation career and developed my practice, I am also managing Adal Aur Sehat Project and ensured that my work is creating an impact. Alongside, I teach and make regular appearances on student led platforms to educate the aspiring lawyers about various laws and guide them regarding the career paths they can choose. Due to my efforts and active engagement with students, I am now also serving on the Advisory Board of a student led initiative, Young Solicitors.
You seek to alter the narratives around women’s rights and have actively been part of women’s rights campaigns/marches in the past. Tell us more about this.
I have previously been one of the organizers of the Aurat March Karachi, which is a group of women who march every year demanding the state to guarantee constitutional protections and human rights. I was a part of drafting the charter of demands, which sought to highlight the physical, sexual, emotional and economic violence perpetuated against women, and also proposed effective solutions to eradicate the same.
Moreover, previously I have been part the Legal Aid Foundation for Victims of Rape and Sexual Assault wherein I was part of the team working to get the rape survivors justice; and having witnessed the ordeal they go through has persuaded me to bring reform both in the legal practice and society. My work on domestic violence and family laws cases entails arguments, which humanize the experiences of the women I am representing. Unlike the prevalent litigation practice adopted by most lawyers, which treats a client like a third person delienating and objectifying their interests, I endeavour to bring their experience to the forefront and encourage their involvement in the whole process. This I do to a) sensitize the legal system to the issues of women b) to legitimize their issues.
Additionally, I make appearances on media and social media and talk about the issues both from a legal as well as social perspective to portray the seriousness of the issues and keep the discourse going. At the same time- with Adal Aur Sehat Project, I introduced the fellowship program, which proposed amendments to the Protection of Women Against Harassment at the Workplace Act 2010. The idea and purpose was twofold a) the law needed amendments because women facing workplace harassment are having trouble reporting incidents due to lacunas present in the law; and b) that the law alone is not sufficient to guarantee protection; the society which adheres to repressive norms such as victim blaming also needs to change. Through our trainings we focused on looking at both social and legal aspect of proposing effective policies
What advice do you have for law students aspiring to a career in Family Law?
One thing I unlearned when I entered into practice was ‘treating the client as a person who has no involvement in the case’. When I started practicing independently, I actively try to involve them in the process of finding an effective legal solution to their problems and I do that with a professionalism that reflects honesty as well as empathy. Few things I will state here,
- Start your career at a law firm and get training – then after 3 years go solo/independent
- If you don’t have clients, seek pro-bono cases but start somewhere
- It is important to maintain long term but good relationships with your seniors, mentors, juniors – who can encourage you and guide you at all walks. Seek advice regularly
- Independent practice will teach you the ground work from start to end in a trial
- Explore entrepreuneurship – start envisioning the financial and general structure model for the law firm you are going to establish for you. Law students are generally not taught this – because the courses are designed in a way to teach you how to work under someone rather than teaching you how to be independent
- Build a relationship of trust with the client. This again is something not taught in law schools – Client Psychology. Based on what I have learnt when clients come to you – as a lawyer your job is to make an assessment not only on the strength of the case but also the willingness of the client to pursue the case further, to discuss matters with you/co-operation or even the readiness to monetarily compensate you for your service. You can manage your client relationship by a) being absolutely honest with them about the progress, chances and success of the case. If a case seems not maintainable in court of law; tell the client. Be open to communicate the same. This in no way decreases your merit, respect or aptitude. But clients are then more inclined to working with you; b) Empathize with them- tell them their issues are important. You see when clients come to you they are at a stage where they are stressed and in a lot of emotional and mental pressure; so try to speak to them first without wearing your lawyer hat and gain their trust by showing seriousness and value; c) Absolute clarity in the area of law- do your research, read the statutes, case laws, or even other jurisdictions cases to understand how a certain law will/can play out in a court; d) communicate to your client what all are you writing in the pleadings and what strategy are you going to adopt to in the court; it is important to be sure that your strategy is agreed to by the client. The client needs to be comfortable with all that you will say in the court
- In a court room, preparation is important but ensure that you are paying respect to the process, judges, staff, opposing counsel and the law
- Speech should remain respectful and since it is a family law case, your conduct should showcase absolute seriousness, sensitivity and concern. And your arguments should state the law with clarity
- Prepare for the evidence by working on the questions beforehand; prepare your witnesses thoroughly and walk them through the situations that could possibly play out