Leila Seth, the first woman chief justice of a high court, says she was a victim of gender bias during initial years of her service but put her foot down and learnt how to become an umpire from being a player.
Eighty-four-year-old Seth started her practice in the Patna High Court and then was appointed junior standing counsel for income tax. She spent 10 years in Patna before moving to Calcutta. Finally she decided to settle in the national capital where both the Delhi High Court and the Supreme Court are located.
“After practising in Delhi for five years in most aspects of law, including constitutional and tax matters, I was designated a senior advocate by the Supreme Court in January 1977 and appointed a judge of the Delhi High Court on July 25, 1978,” she says.
“The convention was that the new judge, after being sworn in, would sit in court with the Chief Justice to benefit from his experience. But the Chief Justice, with his conservative ideas, was apprehensive about sitting with a woman, as it meant not only being together in open court, but also being alone in closed chambers thereafter for discussion and decision.
“I am told he said, ‘… I can’t do it.’ So I sat with a senior judge, suave, Westernised and with impeccable manners. He was relaxed and subtly taught me how to change from being a player to being an umpire,” she wrote in a recent article in “The Equator Line” magazine.
Seth was also not comfortable with lawyers addressing her as ‘My Lord’.
“When I asked a question and my brother judge pointed out to them that they should say My Lady, they thought the easiest way out was to say, My Lord and look at the male judge as if the question had emanated from him! Very rarely was I addressed correctly,” she writes.
“On the other hand, most of my brother judges, while introducing me to outsiders would say, ‘Meet our new lady judge,’ as if my sex was not apparent. They also wanted me to take on the tea arrangements, when there was a celebration.
“I put my foot down and insisted that whoever was doing it earlier should continue to do it and not treat it as a job for a woman,” she says.
Leila Seth also claims that a top judge once spoke to her on the telephone in a very offensive tone when she was the acting Chief Justice of the Delhi High Court.
“I registered my protest,” she says.
Citing the appointment of Fathima Beevi as the first woman judge of the Supreme Court, Seth claims a top judge openly stated that she was going to be a very junior judge and would retire in two-and-a-half years and would therefore not be heading a bench.
“If this was the mindset of some of the chief justices, lawyers, businessmen and others, it was a Herculean task for women to get ahead in the judicial hierarchy,” she says.
On August 5, 1991, Seth was sworn in as the Chief Justice of the Himachal Pradesh High Court, becoming the first woman chief justice of a state in India.
“I knew that I would be critically watched and my mistakes or misjudgements would be highlighted and would reflect on women who followed. I needed to be especially conscientious and diligent,” she says.
Seth soon fell into the stride of court work and administration. She says she was interested in achieving the best for the administration of justice rather than showing her prowess.
“I think it was hard for the male judges, particularly those who came from feudal backgrounds and were not used to the idea of a woman being the decision maker. At Full Court meetings, I made a conscious effort to be gentle but firm.”
She tried to work by consensus and “when that was not possible or when it went against the grain of what I believed to be right, I put my foot down”.