Why Late Justice Leila Seth Stood Out As The Stereotype-Smashing Face Of The Judiciary

Leila Seth, the first female judge of the Delhi High Court and the first female chief justice of a high court in India, passed away of a cardiac arrest on Friday night at her residence in Noida, according to reports. She was 86.

A family member told reporters that the late judge will not be cremated. Justice Seth’s body will be instead donated to the Army Research and Referral Hospital in Delhi for the advancement of medical sciences and research, as she desired in her will. A memorial service will be held on May 28.

The former chief justice had an excellent legal mind, who continued to work on legal matters after her retirement in 1992. Here is a brief look into the life and career of the stereotype-smashing judge:

1. Justice Seth took up law by accident when she went to London and found that studying law would not require her to attend classes. Eventually, she became the first woman to top the London Bar exam in 1958.

2. After two decades of practice in high courts and the Supreme Court of India, she was appointed an additional judge of the Delhi High Court in 1978. A year later, she was made a permanent judge. She was the first woman to achieve this feat at the court.

3. She was appointed as the chief justice of the Himachal Pradesh High Court in August 1991. This was another first for a woman in India. A year later, she retired.

4. Not wanting to be pigeonholed into stereotypical divorce and custody cases, she is known to have actively sought income tax, commercial law, and contracts cases. In the Supreme Court, where she started practising from 1972, she handled tax matters, writ petitions and constitutional, civil and criminal appeals.

5. After her retirement, the former Chief Justice was also appointed a member of the 15th Law Commission of India from 1997 to 2000. The Commission had recommended amendments to the Hindu Succession Act to grant equal rights to daughters in joint family property.

Portrait of Leila Seth.

6. Justice Seth was one of the three members of the Justice Verma Committee set up to re-examine rape laws in India after the 2012 Delhi gang-rape incident, in which the Supreme Court recently upheld the death sentence of the convicts. The recommendations made by the committee led to the Criminal Law (Amendment) Act of 2013, which changed the definition of rape, among other things. Some of the committee’s other suggestions, such as making marital rape punishable and limiting punishment for rape to life imprisonment, were however not accepted by the government.

7. Late in her life, Seth also authored at least three books. She wrote her autobiography in 2003, following it up with “We, The Children of India” in 2010, which explains the Constitution to children. She wrote, “Talking of Justice: People’s Rights in Modern India” in 2014.

8. A month after the Supreme Court overturned the Delhi High Court’s judgment on section 377, Seth heavily criticised the judgment in an article for being illogical and the Supreme Court for abdicating its responsibility to protect the fundamental rights of people. “As the mother of my elder son, I was extremely upset. But as a lawyer and a former judge, I decided to reserve my views till I had read the judgment. When I read it, it would be true to say that I found it difficult to follow its logic,” she wrote. The article was carried in the New York Review of Books with a poem by the aforementioned ‘elder son’, the noted author Vikram Seth.

Image source: Pradeep Gaur/ Mint via Getty Images
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