Leila Seth (20 October 1930 – 5 May 2017) was the first woman judge on the Delhi High Court and she became the first woman to become Chief Justice of a state High Court on 5 August 1991. She sat on a number of enquiry commissions, including one into the death of 'Biscuit Baron' Rajan Pillai, and was also a part of the three-member bench of the Justice Verma Committee that was established to overhaul India's rape laws in the aftermath of the infamous 2012 Delhi gang-rape case. She was a member of the 15th Law Commission of India from 1997 to 2000, and was responsible for the amendments to the Hindu Succession Act that gave equal rights to daughters in joint family property.
Seth in 2011
|8th Chief Justice, Himachal Pradesh High Court|
5 August 1991 – 20 October 1992
|Preceded by||P. C. B. Menon|
|Succeeded by||Shashi Kant Seth|
|Judge, Delhi High Court|
25 July 1978 – 4 August 1991
|Born||20 October 1930|
Lucknow, United Provinces, British India
|Died||5 May 2017 (aged 86)|
|Spouse(s)||Prem Nath Seth|
|Children||3; including Vikram Seth|
Leila Seth was born on 20 October 1930 in Lucknow, the first daughter after two sons in her family. She is said to have been very close to her father, who worked in the Imperial Railway Service and was devastated when he died when she was only 11 years old.
After her father's death, the family struggled financially, but Leila's mother managed to educate her in Loreto Convent, Darjeeling. After finishing her schooling, she began to work as a stenographer in Kolkata. It was here that she was introduced to her husband Prem Seth, and had what she called a 'semi-arranged' marriage.
After marriage, she moved to London with her husband who was working at Bata. Her move to London gave her the opportunity to start studying law. In an interview, she said that she picked law for the simple reason that it did not require attending classes, which was a priority since she had an infant at the time.
In 1958, Leila Seth wrote the London Bar exam and topped it at the age of 27, becoming the first woman to do so. She joined the bar in 1959. In the same year she also cleared the civil services examination 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 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.
Immediately after the London Bar, Leila and Prem Seth moved back to India, where Leila began to practice law in Patna. She initially worked under a senior lawyer named Mr Sachin Chaudhary. She also worked as a junior to Ashoke Kumar Sen. She worked at the Patna High Court for 10 years. She has spoken about the discriminatory attitudes she had to face for being a woman in the male-dominated field of law. She recounted how she would initially not get a lot of work, as people did not think a woman lawyer would be capable of handling it.
Leila Seth handled diverse cases, from Tax matters (Income Tax, Sales Tax, Excise and Customs), to Company Law, Constitutional Law, Civil, Criminal cases and also Matrimonial suits and public interest litigations.
After practicing at the Patna High Court for 10 years, Leila Seth moved to the Delhi High Court in 1972 and worked with original civil petitions, criminal matters, company petitions, revisions and appeals. In the same year, she launched her Supreme Court practice, handling tax matters, writ petitions and constitutional civil and criminal appeals.
Leila was also on the panel of lawyers for the West Bengal government in the Supreme Court from June 1974. On 10 January 1977, she was designated as a senior advocate by the Supreme Court.
In 1978, Leila Seth became the Judge of the Delhi High Court, breaking the glass ceiling by becoming the first woman to do so. Her career continued to rise as she became the Chief Justice of Himachal Pradesh High Court, again the first woman to be the Chief Justice of a State High Court.
Leila Seth chaired various judicial and humanitarian institutions. She was a member of the 15th Law Commission of India from 1997 to 2000, during which time she spearheaded the campaign to give daughters inheritance rights over ancestral property in the Hindu Succession Act (1956). She was also served as the Chair of the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI) for several years.
Justice Seth was also a part of various enquiry commissions, one of which was responsible for studying the effects of the television serial, Shaktiman (about a popular superhero) on children. Shaktiman was a popular TV series for children and it was the center of controversy because many children set themselves on fire or threw themselves off buildings hoping that Shaktiman would come and rescue them. She was also the single-member of the Justice Leila Seth Commission which enquired into the custodial death of businessman Rajan Pillai, or popularly known as "Biscuit Baron".
Significantly, Justice Leila Seth was a part of the three member Justice Verma Commission instituted after the 2012 Delhi gang rape case to look into an overhaul of rape laws in India.
Justice Leila Seth married Prem Seth when she was 24 years old. They had three children together – Vikram Seth, Shantum and Aradhana. Vikram Seth went on to be an acclaimed poet and author, Shantum is a Buddhist teacher, and Aradhana is a filmmaker.
Leila Seth was vocal about supporting her son Vikram Seth when he came out as gay, and wrote extensively decrying Section 377 and in favour of LGBTQIA rights, including an op-ed in The Times Of India after the Koushal judgment in 2013 reinstated Section 377.
Justice Leila Seth died after suffering a cardio-respiratory attack on the night of 5 May 2017 at her residence in Noida, aged 86. She is survived by her husband, two sons and a daughter. As per her wishes no funeral was held since she donated her eyes and other organs for transplant or medical research purposes.
- "5th August 1991: Justice Leila Seth Becomes the First Indian Woman Chief Justice of a state High Court".
- Perappadan, Bindu Shajan (6 May 2017). "Leila Seth, Delhi High Court's first woman judge, passes away". The Hindu. ISSN 0971-751X. Retrieved 25 November 2017.
- "The Lady of Law and Love: A Tribute to Justice Leila Seth". Feminism in India. 18 July 2017. Retrieved 25 November 2017.
- "Justice Leila Seth: an illustrious life". femina.in. Retrieved 25 November 2017.
- Zaman, Rana Siddiqui (3 November 2014). "Çapital Chronicles: 'Delhi now loves money and chamak-dhamak'". The Hindu. ISSN 0971-751X. Retrieved 25 November 2017.
- "Interview with Leila Seth - Former Chief Justice of India | Free Press Journal". www.freepressjournal.in. Retrieved 25 November 2017.
- "Watch Justice Leila Seth Deliver an Arresting Talk on Women and Inheritance - The Ladies FingerThe Ladies Finger". theladiesfinger.com. Retrieved 25 November 2017.
- "Rajan Pillai death: Advani rejects probe plea". Rediff.com. Archived from the original on 27 February 2012. Retrieved 27 February 2012.
- Seth, Leila. "How Leila Seth co-wrote the law that convicted the Delhi gang rape and murder criminals". Scroll.in. Retrieved 25 November 2017.
- "Justice Leila Seth Chose To Put Herself Out There, In A World Where Social Stigma Often Outweighs The Law". Huffington Post India. 7 May 2017. Retrieved 25 November 2017.
- "A mother and a judge speaks out on section 377 - Times of India". The Times of India. Retrieved 25 November 2017.
- Leila Seth, first woman judge of Delhi high court, dies at 86
- Justice Leila Seth, First Woman Judge Of Delhi High Court, Dies At 86