[Book Review] Sanjay Pinto's High and Law

At its core, High and Law is a book devoted and dedicated to the common person’s dealings with the law.
Sanjay pinto
Sanjay pinto

A few days ago, as the clock neared midnight, one of us was greeted by extremely loud fireworks in a Chennai neighbourhood. As the unrelenting barrage continued, one absentmindedly reached for Sanjay Pinto’s new book, High and Law. Might the tome include something about dealing with this nuisance? Sure enough, it did. The book provides a useful summary of the Supreme Court’s restrictions on lighting crackers. Relying on this information, a complaint was made to the Chennai Police control room. The din and the noise eventually abated.

A well-respected journalist and political commentator, Pinto returned to full-time legal practice a few years ago. High and Law is his fourth book. It is a collection of Pinto’s articles published by the Deccan Chronicle. Pinto writes a weekly column for that newspaper under the caption “Justice for All.” Pinto chose 150 of these columns, written over a seven-year period, and revised and updated them for the book. The compilation covers a range of topics from administrative law and animal welfare to banking law, consular protection, education, food safety, and finally to motor vehicles, property, and religion.

As Pinto explains in the introduction, his delayed re-entry into the legal profession foreclosed the possibility of working with a senior lawyer. With no godfather to guide him, Pinto turned to research and writing to overcome that lost opportunity. Producing a weekly newspaper column is never an easy task. Yet, Pinto has managed to do so even as he grew his legal clientele, participated in television debates, and shouldered family responsibilities.

At its core, High and Law is a book devoted and dedicated to the common person’s dealings with the law. Pinto tells us that the title is derived from Lord Denning’s ringing admonition: “Be you ever so high, the law is above you.” In India, of course, this dictum was popularized by Justice VR Krishna Iyer in Sankal Chand Seth’s case to emphasize that the country is run by a “government of laws not of men.” Drawing on that principle, Pinto discusses everyday legal problems faced by ordinary Indians: school children and college students, senior citizens, airline passengers, bank customers, pet owners, apartment residents, consumers of services, and social-media users. Using a recent news story or social media controversy as the setting, Pinto discusses its often-overlooked legal dimensions and offers constructive suggestions for a pragmatic resolution.

High and Law
High and Law

The book betrays Pinto’s concern for the robustness and integrity of India’s legal system. This is evident from several columns on the state of the judiciary. Among other things, Pinto addresses judicial delays that plague the system at all levels. He provides detailed procedural and policy recommendations for courts to render speedy and effective justice. As Pinto emphasizes, transparency and openness are vital to securing public faith in the country’s legal institutions. Given his experience as a journalist, Pinto offers valuable insights on the coverage of judicial proceedings on television and on social media. Live reporting and blogging have led to rising public interest in the judiciary. Moreover, lawyers, litigants, and the public do not have to be physically present to understand what transpires in a court room. Yet, this accessibility has also generated a substantial degree of curiosity, commentary, and criticism about what judges do. Much of this commentary is healthy and responsible. And Pinto cautions judges against threatening too frequently to hold their critics in contempt. At the same time, he maintains that unfounded attacks on judges may erode public confidence in the system.

Turning to alternate dispute resolution, Pinto condemns the batch appointment of arbitrators by large corporations in disputes involving ordinary consumers. He calls for greater judicial oversight, rather than interference, in arbitral processes. He argues that impartial arbitration is vital to securing consumers’ rights and privileges. This principle was recently emphasized by the Supreme Court's Justice Ravindra Bhat, who underlined that arbitration cannot be the preserve of only the rich.

Unsurprisingly, High and Law discusses the COVID-19 pandemic at some length. Pinto examines the legal and societal implications of lockdowns, masking, isolation measures, and medical treatment. He criticizes the lack of regulation over hospital admission policies and treatment costs and advocates more vigorous public vaccination campaigns. He also reflects more broadly on the pandemic’s impact on education and the conduct of elections.

Pinto’s angst about the overall pandemic response is upfront and blunt. He is distressed by the general complacency over effective prevention and protective measures such as masking in public. No cost is too high for protecting children, the immunocompromised, and the elderly from the virus. Pinto bemoans failures all around, whether by the Central and state governments, regulatory agencies, or the Election Commission. Yet, he also emphasizes that the pandemic provides valuable lessons for handling future crises and emergencies.

The book also deals with several public health issues beyond the pandemic. Pinto forcefully champions the rights of senior citizens to medical services. He argues that Goods and Services Tax (GST) on mediclaim payments unfairly pinches senior citizens. He also condemns hospitals that turn away patients with psychiatric issues. He points out that the Mental Healthcare Act, 2017 bars discrimination and provides for medical insurance for mental illness.

High and Law includes a sizeable number of pages on cyber security and information technology. Pinto unravels the growing complexity of the legal and regulatory framework for information technology. He points out that law enforcement agencies now enjoy significant powers to investigate cybercrimes, intercept electronic messages, and utilize evidence obtained from digital sources. Proper training and capacity building is necessary for police and law enforcement to effectively use these powers consistent with citizens’ rights and liberties, he writes.

In discussing issues relating to criminal justice, Pinto argues that anticipatory bail is not an admission of guilt. He analyses the circumstances in which a court may ignore the prescribed limitation period for criminal investigations and charge sheets. And he emphasizes the need to protect the identity of sexual abuse victims. In a passionately argued piece on child rape, Pinto deplores calls for vigilante justice even as he supports the death penalty for those found guilty in these “rarest of the rare” cases.

The author criticizes the reckless grant of remission to those serving life sentences. He argues that the government must consider the perspective of the victim’s family before releasing convicts prematurely. Pinto was provoked by the Tamil Nadu government’s 2018 decision to set free those convicted in the horrific Dharmapuri bus burning case. His analysis might just as well apply to the recent decision to release the perpetrators of the dastardly Bilkis Bano gang rape.

The book also includes several columns focusing on equality and gender equity questions. Pinto hails the Madras High Court’s advancement of LGBTQIA+ rights. On the other hand, he is critical of the Supreme Court’s decision decriminalizing adultery for failing to consider the impact on families and children. The book’s timeliness is also evident in Pinto’s detailed discussion of the Karnataka hijab ban controversy, which is now before the Supreme Court.

High and Law is an accessibly written compilation reflecting considerable research and careful thinking. It is a ready reckoner for laypersons and a useful resource for even seasoned lawyers and judges. Throughout his columns, Pinto emphasizes that every citizen can be a meaningful participant in India’s legal edifice. Lawyers and judges do not have a monopoly on law and justice issues. Yet, the book isn’t just about improving the effectiveness of the legal and justice delivery system. In article after article, Pinto emphasizes the importance of reasonableness, equity, basic decency, fair play, and business ethics. It is these values - and not just legal niceties alone - that must dictate how governments deal with citizens and corporations, and service providers interact with consumers.

 Dhileepan Pakutharivu is an advocate practicing before the Madras High Court and Vikram Raghavan is an international lawyer who contributes to the blog Law and Other Things. 

The views expressed here are personal and should not be attributed in any manner to any professional institutions to which the authors are affiliated. 

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author's and do not necessarily reflect the views of Bar & Bench.

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