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Raising the Bench For Equality

Legally SpeakingRaising the Bench For Equality

When Leila Seth wished to join the bar and approached a senior, she was asked to fulfill her traditional role first. ‘Go and get married’ said the senior to Mrs. Seth. Then she was told to have a child and to have another child so that the first child doesn’t feel alone. Mrs. Seth, a mother of two at the time, duly informed him of her family. The senior finally relented and said ‘Come and join my chambers. You’re a persistent young woman, and you will do well at the Bar.’
Though every young lawyer perseveres in this laborious profession, the women require an extra good deal of persistence to establish themselves. This notion was also echoed by the Chief Justice of India, Dr. D.Y. Chandrachud who called the legal profession a gentlemen’s club where the entry itself for women lawyers remain an uphill task. However, some women not only entered the legal field, but persisted until they got their seat at the Bench.
Justice Leila Seth joined the Bar in 1959 after topping the London Bar exam. She began her practice in Patna and unlike other lawyers in the male-dominated field, she had to work twice as hard to dismantle the perception that ‘a woman lawyer is not capable of the tough legal work’. But her hard-work and persistence led to her being the first female advocate to be designated as the Senior Advocate by the Supreme Court in 1977. She became the first female judge of the Delhi High Court in 1978 and followed it up with being the first woman Chief Justice of a State High Court.

She became a contender of the inheritance rights of the daughters over ancestral property recognizing the importance of financial independence for women. A cause that she contributed towards as the member of the 15th Law Commission of India to suggest amendments for the succession laws. She was also part of the three member Justice Verma Commission that suggested a reform of criminal laws after the Nirbhaya case. She also remained in support of her son, the acclaimed writer, Vikram Seth, and his battle to gain recognition for the right to love for the LGBTQ+ community in India.
The second female to be designated as the senior advocate in 2007 by the Supreme Court was the 1988 topper of the Advocate-on-record examination, Indu Malhotra. Indu Malhotra, with her expertise in arbitration law, had continued to reform the legal field as the first female to be elevated as the judge of the Supreme Court directly form the Bar.
She stood in concurrence to recognize the right to love for the LGBTQ+ community in the case of Navtej Singh Johar v. Union of India as she expanded the fundamental right under Article 15 in favour of the LGBTQ+ community to include prohibition against sexual orientation.
A graduate of the Campus Law Centre, Delhi University, Justice Hima Kohli was elevated to the Bench of the Delhi High Court on 2006. As part of the Bench, she contributed towards the right to privacy for the juveniles accused of crime by holding that the identity of such juveniles must be protected.
It was during her tenure at the Delhi High Court that COVID-19 pandemic hit India, she proceeded to head the judicial committee monitoring the response of the Delhi Government to the COVID-19 pandemic. She ensured that the facilities of testing and medical aid remained available to the public.
She became the first female Chief Justice of the Telangana High Court in 2021 until her elevation as the judge of the Supreme Court in August 2021. Justice Prathiba M. Singh, a doyen of the intellectual property law, has contributed immensely towards reforming the intellectual property law in India by aiding the consultations with the Parliamentary Panels and Committees as an Advocate. She had also actively advocated for the right to privacy while representing the petitioners against WhatsApp for removal of user information after deletion of the app.
She continues to reform the law as a member of the Bench of Delhi High Court since 2017. In the case of United India Insurance Company Ltd. v. Jai Prakash Tayal, she held against the discrimination towards genetic disorders by the health insurance providers. Justice Singh held such a discrimination to be unconstitutional under Article 14 and also violative of the right to avail health insurance under Article 21.
However, her contributions are not merely limited to the jurisdiction of Delhi High Court; in 2013, she established the Prathiba Singh Scholarship for LLM students at the University of Cambridge in order to provide financial aid to Indian students in order to encourage their pursuit for higher education.
B.V. Nagarathna had joined the Bar in 1987 and had set herself on the path of being the first female Chief Justice of India for the year of 2027. She was appointed to the Karnataka High Court in 2008 and was elevated to the Supreme Court in 2021. In 2009, when she was being detained by the protesting lawyers, she rose as the representative of the ‘not to be cowed down’ judiciary of India and truly represented the persisting and persevering spirit of law. She remained the champion of women’s rights as a member of the Bench as she ordered the establishment of helplines to report domestic violence incidents during the pandemic. She has also participated for reform of workplace as she oversaw the installation of creche and sanitary pad vending machines in the judicial complexes.
The Chief Justice of India recently remarked that a diverse judiciary in future can only be result of a diverse Bar in the present. With the aforementioned and several others as the trailblazers in the practice of law, we can only hope that this inspires the younger generation to diversify the Bar for the future Bench of the judiciary at several levels. As Justice Ginsburg once said, if nine men can sit on the bench of the Supreme Court of the United States then nine women can also have the right to adorn the Bench of the Supreme Court. Hopefully in the future the Supreme Court of India may also be adorned by 33 female judges and not merely a handful.
The writer is Partner, NM Law Chambers

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