Please tell us about yourself
As a Counsel, Bhandari has worked almost exclusively in the Supreme Court of India on a wide range of laws. Also drafted and filed a writ petition challenging the constitutionality of the Aadhaar Act in my independent capacity.
Bhandari did her Masters in Public Policy at the Blavatnik School of Government at the University of Oxford. She completed her BCL (Bachelor in Civil Law) with a distinction and was awarded the Ralph Chiles prize in Comparative Human Rights. She is also a keen sportswoman, having run two half marathons, and is currently the co-captain of the Oxford Women’s Blues Basketball Team. She received her undergraduate law degree (B.A., LL.B.(Hons)) from the National Law School of India University, Bangalore, India.
Where do you call home?
Can you tell me a favorite childhood memory?
I’ve played sports all my life, and continued that at Oxford as well. My favorite childhood memories are connected to sports: going for training at six in the morning for basketball, then going to school directly after that and then having training in the evenings as well. Often that was in the Delhi summers when it was 45 degrees Celsius, getting completely sun burnt and exhausted but I loved basketball that much!
When did you first become passionate about law? How did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and unique career?
I have always been interested in issues of justice from a young age. I don’t come from a family of lawyers and I didn’t really know any lawyers personally so initially I had a very idealistic notion about law. It was when I applied to several law schools and was accepted into all of them, that I really stopped and thought, “This is what I want to do. This is where I want to be.” My first internship was with the National Judicial Academy in Bhopal. At that time my project was to prepare an empirical study by examining the thirty oldest cases to understand the cause for delays – it was a first instance court so these were petty cases like robbery or theft which had been going on for more than five years and still hadn’t been resolved; and that really sparked my passion. Injustice, for me, became a more fundamental question of access – could a layperson approach the legal system, of which I was to become a part, and expect an expeditious hearing, let alone a fair outcome? So through my five years I naturally focused on that, I did some electives on it, I worked in these areas, I wrote a lot about it, and then when I came to Oxford I continued to follow a similar path combining human rights and criminal justice, civil procedure, and international armed conflict.
What was the first job you ever held?
I have done a lot of internships both at think tanks and with litigation lawyers. I am going back to Delhi for two months to work as a consultant with National Law University (NLU) Delhi on a research project directed by the Supreme Court and the Law Commission of India to study delays in the legal system. The Court’s directions specifically require us to recommend immediate measures such as creating additional courts and other allied matters (including a rational and scientific definition of what constitutes “arrears” and delay), to help in elimination of delays[VB1] .
What advice would you offer to a woman interested in studying law?
One thing that I found in my undergraduate degree was that there aren’t as many women as men who actually practice law – you see many more male counselors and judges, and for me law school was a lot about self confidence and knowing that I was as good as any of the men. I think my best advice would be to believe in yourself; you don’t have to prove yourself to anyone else. We often cooperate with the system wherein men and women are not treated equally, but if we really believe in ourselves and push ourselves there is no reason we cannot succeed.
Can you tell me a little bit about your research?
My research is on access to justice – what it means to have both of those (“access” to the legal system and the quality of “justice” being dispensed). Often when we talk about access you encounter problems of geographical, monetary, class or caste barriers – so either the court is in a very remote area, or it’s too expensive to go. Then there is also the question of appeals: for instance, the appeal rates to the Supreme Court from geographically proximate regions like Delhi is nearly 10% whereas it is as low as 1% from states such as Tamil Nadu in South India. This favours well resourced litigants. [VB2] Then once you actually get to court, is that the end of the story? How long is your case delayed for? What is the quality of the justice being dispensed in each and every case? Are our courts consistent, do they speak with one voice, or do they speak with different voices? Does it depend on legal aid? How strong is the legal aid system? A lot of my research is looking at issues of access, manifested specifically through judicial delay and the quality of justice rendered, because often the push for reducing delays means that courts just want to clear their dockets and increase their disposal rates without that necessarily reflecting an improved access to justice.
What is the most rewarding part of studying and working in law?
I think the most rewarding part is having the opportunity to make a difference in even one person’s case, to actually help someone who has been wronged. People talk about idealism and social change – the law can do those things. Not only can you help just one person but also large groups of people. Take for instance the U.S. Supreme Court case of marriage equality, and then DOMA being struck down. In India right now we are waiting for the Supreme Court to rule on the decriminalization of homosexuality, after the Delhi High Court has ruled that it needs to change. If you could work on a case like that which changes one life, or hundreds of lives, there’s nothing more satisfying than that.
If you could go anywhere in the world right now, where would you go and why?
I would go back to Delhi. That’s where I am going to go back to once I complete my Masters in Public Policy at at Oxford. It is easy to criticize India: its inequality, corruption, bureaucracy, poverty and that it is not a great place to live. But we have all benefitted from the education system there and if people like us don’t go back then who will? India needs us to effect positive social change, and we can only really do that if we are there.
Who is your favorite fictional or non-fictional heroine?
Emma Donoghue has written this book called Room, that tells the story of a woman who is being held in captivity inside a single room with her son, and how she uses that room, filling it with stories and games, so she can hide the reality of the situation from her son. It’s her own sacrifice to stop her son feeling like his life is incomplete, and that really struck a chord with me. I’m also reading a book on World War I history, To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914-1918 by Adam Hochschild, which talks about Charlotte Despard, who was a suffragette and opposed the war for the suffering it caused. She was born into a rich family but opted to work with the poor, and went against social norms of what was expected of a woman at that time. She made a lot of powerful enemies, but she stuck to her cause which was very interesting to me. I’d say she is my ultimate heroine. To fight as a suffragette and to fight against the war would have been a very unpopular sentiment at the time – she gave up all of the trappings of wealth and power that she had. She is very inspirational to me.