Sanjay Vashishtha (Interview)

Sanjay Vashishtha (Interview)

Interview by 

Nabeela Siddiqui (Director – Research& Publication)


Sanjay Vashishtha
B.A., LL.B (Honours) | Advocate | Criminologist
LL.M, Comparative Law | McGill University, Montreal, Canada
MSc. Criminology & Criminal Justice | University of Oxford, UK

About Interviewee

He is an independent criminologist and a lawyer practicing mainly before the High Court of Delhi followed with the Apex Court and the Trial Courts. He is also a passionate criminologist and focuses upon gendered crimes like acid attacks, domestic violence, honour related crimes, dowry harassment ET Cetra along with a special focus on wrongful convictions and policing reforms. He is presently associated with the Association in Defence for Wrongful Convictions (Innocence Canda), Indian Police Institute along with other Human Right Organisations with regards to his criminological endeavour and ‘The Vashishtha Law Office’s’ in furtherance to his legal career.
The Vashishtha Law Office’s is a law firm situated at the heart of South Delhi now open at two locations namely, Kalkaji and Saket (Near Community Centre). They are a team comprising of 2 Senior Partners, 1 Senior Associate and 3 associates along with our utmost important administrative staff and interns. They extensively deal in company law, criminal law, civil litigation, alternative dispute resolutions and have recently extended their feathers to intellectual property rights as well. 

NABEELA – Sir, tell me about your initiatives in legal aid & awareness field as a law student and now as an advocate.
SANJAY - As a law student, I was actively involved with various NGO’s in my quest to fight crimes against women, mostly operating in the Tughlakabad slums. I also surveyed the Tughlakabad slums on behalf of the Delhi State Legal Service Authority and hosted legal aid programmes for slum dwellers in association with regional NGO’s. At the same time, I was involved with the Association in Defence of the Wrongfully Convicted (AIDWYC) as this was one issue that attracted me the most. Wrongful convictions, especially in India is rampant beyond words can define. Persons with disabilities, prisoners with mental health issues, and prisoners (on behalf of the actual offender) etc. often plead guilty or are wrongfully convicted due to their inability to defend and protect their rights.  

NABEELA – Sir, What is the importance of study of SocioLegal issues in legal field?
SANJAY - The importance of sociology in law is inexplicable. In fact, they should be used interchangeably as one does not exist without the other. However, the absence of former in legal adjudication of conflicts is a fundamental issue lately especially in the administration of criminal justice where offenders are often sentenced and tried without any consideration to their mental health, social setting, socio-economic background and/or socio-legal issues surrounding the offence. This disconnect needs to be reconciled either by vocational training for practicing advocates and judges or perhaps through expert intervention at various stages of a criminal trial but especially sentencing. But the study of socio-legal domain is not only essential for lawyers and judges, but also for police, prosecutors, prison staff and the public at large. I feel this is perhaps the only avenue that can mitigate neoliberal penal populism and the politics of penal populism. A lot can be said on this issue. 

NABEELA – According to you, what is the role of higher judiciary in legal aid & awareness in India?
SANJAY -The role of Higher Judiciary in legal aid & related awareness is that of a guardian and children. I have personally witnessed various High Court judges very informally explain legal aid procedures to individuals who are unable to protect their rights and interests due to financial incapacitation as access to justice often implies access to money. Furthermore, we have often witnessed Supreme Court treating letters as writ petitions while exercising their epistolary jurisdiction. These are great endeavours, but subject to major improvements. I believe the Courts must take further steps to boost their suo-motto participation in matters that are seldom reported. Further steps should be taken to make legal service committees of various high courts accessible to individuals who require these legal aid services. Practically there are various systematic lacunas that overshadow legal aid at the higher judicial hierarchy coupled with the disconnect between the legal aid programs in general. I believe robust attempts should be made to connect various legal aid channels and mechanisms to provide thorough legal aid to the victims and offenders as and when required. 

NABEELA – Sir, What is the role of Government in legal aid & awareness in India?
SANJAY-Robust policy making with practical implications on the life of the victims and the rehabilitation of the offenders coupled with resource allocation in this era of austerity is one major role a good government must play in brief. But policies are often framed without any evidence or its long-term tracking. I am a strong advocate of ‘Evidence Based Policy making for a diverse India’. Legal aid is not only about monetary and legal relief, but must also ensure rehabilitation of both victim and the offender in entirety. Perhaps one of my blogs written in the policing context will elucidate some light on this aspect.

NABEELA - What are your views on present situation of legal aid and awareness initiatives in India?
SANJAY -The present situation of legal aid as we all mostly understand is not upto the mark. While the victim compensation scheme along with various other schemes are duly created and enacted, its practical enforceability is always questionable. I was the editor of one of such report for India on behalf of Oxford, which can be duly found (here), the victims hardly find any respite in such schemes. The legal aid and awareness initiatives are very remote. It is once an individual enters the “system” they are told about ‘legal aid’, but if perhaps they were aware of such services in general, the same would be an incentive for many to report crimes against their own self and their loves ones and friends. But awareness related to legal aid outside of the formal system is hardly heard of. I believe a lot is to be done in this arena and it’s not very hard, especially in light of the powerful social media and electronic media. But the litmus test is: how often do we actually hear about legal aid services in general? 

NABEELA - What are your views on effectiveness of Legal Service Authority Act, 1987?
SANJAY-The Legal Service Authority Act, 1987 has a vast history and a complex list of developments but finally came into force on 9th November 1995 after various amendments in the original bill. This year marks the 22nd year of the Legal Services Authority Act (hereinafter LSAA) and the importance of this act is not to be undermined whatsoever. I believe the act has done a great deal in creating hierarchies of bodies throughout the country and perhaps the dream Justice Bhagwati envisaged in this regard is becoming a reality by day, but I personally often feel that quality of legal aid and the satisfaction of legal aid recipients are hardly monitored or surveyed. The act is procedurally robust, and my knowledge tells me that funding is hardly an issue anymore when it comes to legal aid. I believe our prime focus should be on quality and effective tracking of the legal aid programmes. Legal aid must not be equated to a favour to the victims and the offenders, as it is nothing but “equal justice in action” in the words of Justice P.N. Bhagwati. Plethora of landmark judgements highlight the importance of a robust legal aid department without compromising with the quality, failing which the entire essence of the act would stand repudiated. I therefore deem it fit to suggest that surveys and quality monitoring and tracking is the need of the hour. Urgent measures are required to address issues faced by legal aid recipient and of course those faced by legal aid providers. It’s a vicious cycle indeed, but one of the most important pillars of our legal system. Without this, we do not have fair trial rights. 

NABEELA - What are your views on present situation of Public Interest Litigation (PIL) in India?
SANJAY -PIL’s as a scheme was envisaged by two of my role model judges i.e. Justice Krishna Iyer and Justice Bhagwati in the year 1977 and it has simply continued to grow thereafter. I think it’s an empowering tool, undoubtedly. We witness various PILs and their societal impact at large every now and then, the most recent one being the one that brought down the prices of medical stent by an alarming percentage. PILs are ‘awesome’ but intention matters. While the Supreme Court was swift in laying down 10-point guideline to prevent frivolous PILs in 2010, we still often witness baseless PILs simply filed either to gain attention or on frivolous and malafide grounds. The latter is not only a waste of public money and time of an overburdened system; it also discourages genuine PILs by narrowing the corridors those entertain PILs. Indeed, it has pioneered and helped in the protection and preservation of environment, flora and fauna, tackle pollution and various other issues, and the same should be the benchmark of judging the future of PILs in India, but as suggested previously, it should be filed with honesty and after an all-round research on the underlying issues, perhaps after exhausting most of the alternative remedies. 

NABEELA – Sir, What advise you would like to give to the future Advocates/Professors/Scholars with regards to socio-legal issues, legal aid and awareness initiatives?
SANJAY-My only advice is: to be critical, think and evaluate law for everybody. Pen your thoughts and have a voice that protects others.

NABEELA - Message to Pro Bono India.
SANJAY -Keep up the good work. I believe in the unlimited power and energy of discourse! Thank you for interviewing me.