5th August 1991: Justice Leila Seth Becomes the First Indian Woman Chief Justice of a state High Court


On 5th August 1991, Justice Leila Seth became the first Indian woman Chief Justice of a state High Court. She was also the first woman judge of the Delhi High Court.


Leila Seth was born in October 1930 in Lucknow and was the first woman to top the London Bar exam and joined the Bar in 1959. In the same year she also graduated as an IAS officer. Upon topping the Bar in England, Seth was referred to as “Mother-in-Law” by a London newspaper, which carried a photograph of a young and attractive Leila Seth with her infant son, born only a few months before the exams. At the same time, other newspapers expressed their grief about how out of 580 students who took the Bar Exam, a married woman topped it.


Seth overlooked a large number of tax matters, such as income tax, sales tax, excise and customs. Apart from tax, Seth also handled cases related to civil, company and criminal cases, along with matrimonial suits. In 1978 Seth was appointed the first woman judge of the Delhi High Court and in 1991 she became the Chief Justice of Himachal Pradesh.


Seth was also a part of various enquiry commissions, one of which was responsible for studying the effects of the serial Shaktiman (about a popular superhero) on children. Shaktiman was a popular children’s TV program broadcast on TV in the late 90’s and was also the centre of a lot of controversy. The reason being, that many children set themselves on fire and threw themselves off buildings hoping that Shaktimaan would come and rescue them. Justice Seth was also part of an enquiry into the death of businessman Rajan Pillai, known as the “Biscuit Baron”, who was found dead in police custody. She was also part of the Law Commission of India till 2000, which amended the Hindu Succession Act, under which daughters got equal rights to joint family property.


Justice Seth is the mother of acclaimed Indian writer, Vikram Seth, famous for having written many novels, including the very popular, A Suitable Boy. Leila Seth has also written an autobiography titled “On Balance” in which she candidly talks about her private and public life and how she attained a balance between the two. The book traverses her journey from that of a little girl who lost her beloved father at a young age to a newly married woman who accidentally strayed into law while in England, to a young mother topping the Bar Exam in London, to becoming an IAS officer, to becoming the first woman Chief Justice of a High Court.


As an expert in the field of law, Leila Seth refers to laws as “springboards”, as they set for people a way, a vision and a target to get things done; though their implementation takes time.  According to Seth, first there are laws and then there is awareness about those laws. After that comes assertion and action of those laws.


Also on This Day:


1775: Maharaja Nandakumar was hanged in Calcutta (now Kolkata). This was the last hanging for forgery by the British in India.


1974: Famous Bollywood actress, Kajol is born.

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