By Dr GV Rao
The further elevation and appointment of Justice Uday Umesh Lalit as the 49th chief justice of India (CJI) is a matter of great pride to lawyers practicing in the Supreme Court of India, as well the whole legal fraternity. This is primarily because in a rare and creditworthy circumstance, an advocate directly appointed as a judge of the Supreme Court Bar has risen to occupy the highest judicial office, namely the chief justice of India.
Only once before has such an occurrence taken place when 51 years back in January 1971, Justice Sarv Mittra Sikri rose to become chief justice. Therefore, the significance of Justice Lalit’s appointment is that it happens in the history of the institution after half a century. And as Justice Lalit has been practicing in the Supreme Court from 1986, prior to his appointment as a judge in 2014, he has 36 years of experience in the top court itself.
It may be noted, however, that Justice Lalit is the 6th Senior Advocate to be directly elevated to the Supreme Court Bar. Justice Lalit’s rich experience emanates from the six years he worked (from 1986 to 1992) with celebrated former Attorney General for India Soli J Sorabjee. Thereafter, having been designated Senior Advocate in April 2004, his practice in the Court continued for about 10 years. Following this, he was appointed judge. This shows the invaluable contribution of his judicial acumen.
Even as a lawyer, he won the praise of the Bench when in 2011, a Supreme Court bench of Justices GS Singhvi and AK Ganguly appointed him as the special public prosecutor for the CBI in the 2G spectrum cases. The Bench stated that “in the interest of a fair prosecution of the case, appointment of UU Lalit is eminently suitable”.
It was well known that he appeared in several high-profile matters and that his clients included several public figures from the political milieu, film, media and entertainment industry. An August 2014 Press Trust of India news report stated that “he had a high reputation for his preparation, patience, and sober demeanour while arguing his cases”.
The enviable reputation that Justice Lalit earned as a member of the Bar was carried forward by him to the Bench where he performed in an equally outstanding and exceptional manner. Justice Lalit’s rich experience has been incorporated in about 600 judgments of the Supreme Court, touching practically all areas of law—constitutional, civil, corporate, criminal, tax, cyber, intellectual property… the list goes on. Needless to say, in these eight years as judge of the apex court, he would have heard several thousands of matters which may have been disposed of summarily, thereby serving the ends of justice.
A saying of Plato comes to mind when we think of a judge like Justice UU Lalit: “And the quality of good judgement is clearly a form of knowledge and skill, as it is because of knowledge and not because of ignorance that we judge well.”
Justice Lalit was part of the two-judge bench that upheld the Travancore Royal family’s right to administer the Sree Padmanabha Swami Temple on July 13, 2020, titled Uthradam Thirunal Marthanda Varma and Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple vs Union of India and others. The bench headed by Justice Lalit had ruled that the erstwhile royal family of Travancore has the management right over the historic Temple in Kerala, one of the richest shrines. It held that the rule of “heritability must get attached to a right of Shebait” (servitor) of the temple. The bench allowed the appeal of the legal heirs of Uthradam Thirunal Marthanda Varma, the younger brother of the last ruler, Sree Chithira Thirunal Balarama Varma, setting aside the Kerala High Court’s 2011 verdict which directed the state government to set up a trust to take control of the management and assets of the Temple. This is a landmark judgment which frees places of religious worship from unnecessary government control.
Justice Lalit has also been deeply concerned regarding the sexual abuse and violation of young children and has effectively implemented and decided matters under the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POSCO) Act, 2012, thereby quashing controversial and untenable judgments like the one delivered by the Bombay High Court which had held that there is no offence when there is no direct “skin-to-skin” contact with sexual intent.
Justice Lalit has also been seen as a progressive judge with respect to social reform, even when it pertains to not so religious practices but personal law. For instance, he held in favour of a ban on triple talaq in Islamic marriages. In Shayara Bano vs Union of India, in 2017, he was part of a three-judge Constitution Bench which ruled that the practice of divorce through instant triple talaq was void, illegal and unconstitutional. This was a path breaking verdict by the bench which decided the matter by a 3-2 majority. As a result of the said judgment, the following year, the president passed the Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Marriage) Ordinance 2018 as advised by the government, which made triple talaq not only void and illegal but also a non-bailable and cognizable offence punishable with a fine and up to three years’ imprisonment.
In view of Justice Lalit’s commitment to legal aid and the suffering of the poor, downtrodden and the needy, he was appointed Executive Chairperson of National Legal Services Authority (NALSA) by Chief Justice NV Ramana, who is the Patron-in-Chief to this most important organisation which strives to ensure that even the poorest of the poor can avail justice despite their desperate conditions.
In every state, State Legal Services Authority has been constituted to give effect to the policies and directions of NALSA and to give free legal services to the people and conduct Lok Adalats in the state. The State Legal Services Authority is headed by the chief justice of the respective High Court who is the Patron-in-Chief of it.
In every district, District Legal Services Authority has been constituted to implement legal services programmes there. The Authority is situated in the District Courts Complex in every district and chaired by the district judge of the respective district courts. The good work being carried out by Justice Lalit as Executive Chairperson in over a year will get better attention when he becomes the chief justice of India and the Patron-in-Chief of NALSA.
Justice Lalit has all the requisite qualities of an excellent judge and for being the chief justice. Unfortunately, he has a short tenure. To leave an imprint and make an impact, the quality of the work is important and not the length of the tenure. It is here that we ought to recall who in our opinion would make a good judge and what would be his qualities.
The Ideal Judge we are a looking for is described by Charles A Horsky in the Harvard Law Review. “In the ultimate sense the great of Judges are those in who is placed the greatest confidence as judges and confidence goes to the Judge who inspires his brethren on the bench, at the Bar and among the Public whom he serves, the conviction the decision of every question, the weighing of every argument, the resolution of every discretionary issue, will be made selflessly, fearlessly, wisely in so far as the wisdom given to him and to the best of the understanding of law which binds him as well as the litigant.”
The excellent work initiated by CJI Ramana would be carried forward ably by Justice Lalit, who also belongs to an illustrious family. His esteemed father, Justice UR Lalit, retired as a judge of the Bombay High Court and was a very effective and popular Senior Advocate in the Supreme Court as well. The entire Bar of the Supreme Court will not only celebrate the elevation of Justice Lalit as the next CJI, but also extend all support to the successful performance of his duties.
—The writer is Senior Advocate, Supreme Court of India