Justice Leila Seth, the first woman judge of the Delhi High Court and the first woman to become Chief Justice of a state high court, passed away on Friday night.
The 86-year old died of cardiac arrest a day after the Supreme Court upheld the death sentences of the four convicts in the Jyoti Singh rape case.
Justice Seth was one of the three members of the committee set up by the then UPA government at the Centre after Jyoti’s brutal rape in December 2012. It was formed to provide for speedy trials and stricter punishments for criminals committing heinous sexual assaults.
Within a month, the committee had submitted its report, where it had also rejected the proposal for chemical castration as it failed to cleanse the social foundation that allows for such animal-like behaviour. It had also proposed that death penalty be removed for the offence of rape as no considerable evidence existed that the punishment curbed the crime. However, in aggravated conditions, it recommended life imprisonment for rape.
Apart from being one of the most powerful voices in jurisprudence, Justice Seth has several distinctions to her credit.
Her career as one of the first women lawyers in India
As the first woman to top the London Bar exam in 1958, Justice Seth then enrolled as an advocate in the Calcutta High Court in 1959 and later in the Supreme Court.
But she had never aspired to become a lawyer – the profession happened to her by accident.
Justice Seth shifted to London after her husband was posted at the Bata Development Office in the city. She thought to take up a course in Montessori learning to start a nursery school when she returned home.
She began her career as a stenographer at the Assam Rail Link Project, but her motherhood forced her into choosing law as its study did not require strict attendance.
The caption “Mother-in-Law” gained massive popularity after she topped the London bar examination in 1958.
She became the first woman judge of the Delhi High Court in 1978 – paving the way for other women Chief Justices. Today, there are eight women judges in the Delhi HC.
When Justice Seth first started out as a lawyer in the Patna High Court, a female lawyer was a rare sighting and the only jobs that she could fetch for herself were lowly criminal cases.
She became a lawyer at a time when her male counterparts were paid ten times the fee she was paid and her legal opinion was regarded as “sound”.
In 1963, she began practising as a tax lawyer. She was appointed by the Centre as the junior standing counsel for the income tax department in Bihar from 1963 to 1968. Notably, she was also a part of the panel of lawyers for the Bihar government in the Patna high court from 1962 to 1968.
In 1972, she started practising in Delhi high court. Two years hence, she was appointed to the panel of lawyers for the West Bengal government in the Supreme Court.
In 1978, she became an additional judge of the Delhi High Court, and a permanent judge two years later.
An advocate of human rights
In her book On Balance, Justice Seth speaks about the several instances of gender bias among male judges and males lawyers she interacted with during her career.
In her New York Times piece ”India: You’re Criminal If Gay”, her voice as a mother breaks out in defence of her eldest son, Vikram Seth, who is a homosexual. She wrote, “ My name is Leila Seth. I am eighty-three years old. I have been in a long and happy marriage of more than sixty years with my husband Premo, and am the mother of three children. The eldest, Vikram, is a writer. The second, Shantum, is a Buddhist teacher. The third, Aradhana, is an artist and filmmaker. But our eldest, Vikram, is now a criminal, an unapprehended felon…”
In 2013, when the Supreme Court quashed the Delhi High Court’s judgement to strike down Section 377 of the Indian Penal Court (which decriminalises homosexual sex), she said, “What makes life meaningful is love. The right that makes us human is the right to love. To criminalise the expression of that right is profoundly cruel and inhumane.To acquiesce in such criminalization or, worse, to recriminalize it, is to display the very opposite of compassion. To show exaggerated deference to a majoritarian Parliament when the matter is one of the fundamental rights is to display judicial pusillanimity, for there is no doubt, that in the constitutional scheme, it is the judiciary that is the ultimate interpreter.”
Justice Seth was vocal about what she stood for – equality for all. She was a person who held human rights, including prisoners’ rights, and justice close to her heart. She strongly opposed the death penalty and believed, “Who am I to take another’s life? Am I God?”
She judged marital rape as a crime because a woman’s sexual consent is necessary at all times and “not merely consent by legal fiction.”
She thought that rape was “gender neutral” and not “gender specific” as anyone can be a victim of the crime – including members of the LGBTQ community.
Justice Seth was the person responsible for bringing amendments to the Hindu Succession Act, giving equal rights to daughters in joint family property.
She had an admirable balance in life – a respect for the law and a mind objective enough to question its shortcomings.
She is the author of three books – her autobiography “On Balance” in 2003, “We, The Children of India”, in 2010, a book for explaining the Constitution to the young minds of our country, and “Talking of Justice: People’s Rights in Modern India” in 2014.
Justice Seth has contributed immensely to the Indian judicial system. She was a woman ahead of her time.
While we are grieved at her demise, The Logical Indian community applauds her commitment to the country’s well-being. When she was alive, she did everything in her power to ensure that each Indian is treated the same in the eyes of the law. Even in her death, she continues serving the people by donating her organs for transplant and medical research.