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Justice Leila Seth: A woman who broke many a glass ceiling in the legal practice

Justice Leila Seth, the first woman judge of the Delhi high court and mother of noted author Vikram Seth, died of cardiac arrest at her Noida residence on Friday night. She was 86.

Justice Seth broke many a glass ceiling during her lifetime, including becoming the first woman to top the London Bar exam, the first female judge of the Delhi high court, and also the first woman chief justice of a state high court (Himachal Pradesh).

She launched her career by enrolling as an advocate in the Calcutta high court as well as the Supreme Court in 1959. It was after 20 years of legal practice that she finally became a judge at the Delhi high court.

She practised in the Patna high court for around 10 years, handling a large number of suits involving income tax, sales tax, excise and customs, civil entities, companies and criminality. She also took up matrimonial suits and public interest litigations.

Justice Seth 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.

She began practising in the Delhi high court from 1972, where her work involved dealing with original civil work, company petitions, writ petitions, tax matters, revisions and appeals. It was also in the same year that she launched her practice in the Supreme Court, handling tax matters, writ petitions and constitutional civil and criminal appeals.

Justice Seth had been on the panel of lawyers for the West Bengal government in the Supreme Court since June 1974. She was designated as a senior advocate by the apex judicial body on January 10, 1977.

In 1978, Justice Seth was appointed as an additional judge of the Delhi high court. Two years later, she was made a permanent judge.

Eleven years later, in 1991, she was appointed as the chief justice of the Himachal Pradesh high court. Justice Seth retired a year later.

However, the first woman judge of the Delhi high court remained busy even at the pensionary stage. She was part of various enquiry commissions, including one that studied the effects of popular TV show Shaktiman on children.

In 1995, the Delhi government appointed Justice Seth to head an inquiry commission tasked with probing the death of businessman Rajan Pillai in police custody. It found out that the victim was not being accorded proper medical treatment.

Besides serving as a member of the 15th Law Commission of India (1997 to 2000), she was also part of the Justice JS Verma committee constituted to take a relook at the country’s criminal laws after the December 16 gang rape case. This resulted in the Criminal Law (Amendment) Act-2013, which widened the definition of rape and made the punishment more severe.

Like her son, Justice Seth has also written a number of books. Her first literal work was an autobiography, titled ‘On Balance’. She later went on to author ‘We, the Children of India’ (2010), which explains the Constitution’s preamble to younger readers, and ‘Talking of Justice: People’s Rights in Modern India’ (2014), a work that discusses several critical issues she experienced during her legal career spanning 50 years.

Source: HindustanTimes