IN THE PASSING away of Justice Leila Seth on May 5th, India has not only lost a great judicial mind but also a pioneering liberal judge.
Seth was part of a group of pioneering lawyers who began their careers soon after India gained Independence. That was a heady time to practice law as a nascent country was creating new institutions suited to its genius after almost two centuries of colonial rule. In this, Seth had an ample measure of participation as she went about practicing in different Indian cities such as Patna, Kolkata and Delhi.
After two decades of legal practice, she broke what was a glass ceiling: she became the first woman to be appointed a judge of the Delhi High Court. Thirteen years later, she broke another, higher, ceiling when she became the first woman chief justice of Himachal Pradesh High Court. Even today, 67 years after India became a Republic—equalising opportunities for everyone irrespective of caste, creed and sex—there aren’t many woman judges in high courts and the Supreme Court. By the standards of her time, these achievements will always stand out.
In a career that spanned many decades and included many memorable judgments and roles—including one as a member of the Law Commission, the body tasked with taking a hard look at existing and planned laws—her role in framing guidelines for sexual assault cases, after a horrific rape and murder in 2012 in Delhi, stood out. If that incident shook India, the careful deliberations of the committee that looked at the legal framework needed to check the menace showed the way ahead.
Today, the Indian judiciary is possibly the most powerful judicial force on the planet, routinely checking the executive for its transgressions. In Justice Seth’s day, it was a far more conservative force, very often deferring to the executive’s wishes. But it was the careful foundation of legal interpretation laid down during her age that enabled the judiciary to be what it is now.