Supreme Court Justice UU Lalit: Spotlight this week

Chief Justice of India NV Ramana recently recommended Justice Lalit as his successor. He will become the 49th Chief Justice of India later this month.
Justice U U Lalit
Justice U U Lalit

Spotlight is a series where we shine the, well, spotlight on lawyers, judges and legal experts who made news over the past week.

Incumbent Chief Justice of India NV Ramana recently wrote to the Central government, recommending the name of Justice UU Lalit to take over as the next Chief Justice of India.

Justice Lalit will take over at the helm of the Supreme Court upon the retirement on CJI Ramana on August 26.

Only the second judge to become CJI after direct elevation from the Bar, Justice Lalit will remain in office till November 8. Known for his composure in legal circles, some say he will leave an "indelible imprint" as CJI.

Who is Justice Lalit?

Justice Lalit was born on November 9, 1957 to former judge of the Bombay High Court and now a Senior Advocate, UR Lalit.

He enrolled as an advocate in June 1983, and practiced at the Bombay High Court till December 1985. He moved to the national capital in January 1986 and was later designated a Senior Advocate of the Supreme Court in April 2004.

He has appeared as amicus curiae (friend of the court) in several important matters, in addition to being appointed a Special Public Prosecutor for the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) in all matters related to the 2G scam.

He was appointed as a judge of the Supreme Court on August 13, 2014.

He is in line to become the next Chief Justice of India, although it will be one of the shortest tenures, after he assumes office in August.

Solicitor General for India Tushar Mehta told Bar & Bench that Justice Lalit the judge and the man were no different.

Lalit, he said, was always pleasant to talk with outside the Court, and was someone he took the same pleasure to argue before.

Tushar Mehta, Solicitor General of India
Tushar Mehta, Solicitor General of India

I also had the occasion of briefing him in the past. I don't find any change then and now. The same humble, smiling, patient and brilliant individual who doesn't carry the burden of his intellect,” he added.

According to the Solicitor General, Justice Lalit was never in a hurry as a judge, or for that matter when it came to preparing for a case as a counsel earlier.

He never let the lawyers feel that they are arguing unnecessarily despite the judge knowing the subject so well. Complete absence of intellectual arrogance both as a counsel earlier and as a judge now. He is humility personified. He will leave an indelible imprint as the Chief Justice of India,” Mehta emphasised.

Advocate Amol Chitale had joined the chambers of Justice Lalit back when he had just been designated as a Senior Advocate, and would take up 15 to 20 cases on miscellaneous days.

He would read up every file from cover to cover and make his own notes. In all the chaos, he always had time to discuss the matters with his juniors and explain complex legal issues,” remembered Chitale.

Advocate Amol Chitale
Advocate Amol Chitale

Chitale worked with Justice Lalit for about six years and recalled that he never discouraged an argument despite a heavy work load.

I don’t remember seeing him agitated even once. Maintaining his cool in pressure situations is his hallmark. He was the favourite of all the briefing advocates as he never gave them any homework to do,” he said.

Chitale also recollected Justice Lalit being self-reliant when it came to work.

"One thing I must share is his beautiful handwriting. However big the matter was, his notes would not be more than one page written in his beautiful handwriting. He would always encourage us to argue our own matters and not engage seniors,” he added.

Notable remarks, cases and recusals

Breaking the norm, Justice Lalit's Bench once began Supreme Court proceedings an hour early from the usual time and he wondered,

"Our children go to school early, then why can't we also hold proceedings at 9:30?"

During a hearing in April, a Bench headed by him cited the famous lines of Irish poet Oscar Wilde - “Every saint has a past, and every sinner has a future”- while commuting a death penalty to a life sentence.

Another Bench headed by the judge initiated a suo motu case to examine the process of collection of information when it comes to sentencing in death penalty cases. The Court sought the assistance of Attorney General KK Venugopal, and the National Legal Services Authority (NALSA) to this end.

As highlighted by Justice Lalit’s Bench, the need of the hour is a comprehensive system to consider the various factors involved in such cases. This, in the Court's view, can change the way the death penalty is viewed and awarded.

He was a part of a Constitution Bench that held the practice of Triple Talaq among Muslims as unconstitutional. As a part of the Bench, the judge and Justice (retired) Rohinton Nariman held that instant Triple Talaq is unconstitutional and violative of Article 14 (Right to Equality).

While setting aside a Bombay High Court judgment which held that sexual assault required skin-to-skin contact, a Bench headed by Justice Lalit held that any physical contact made with sexual intent without penetration will be sexual assault.

Justice Lalit had recused from hearing one of the most highlighted cases in the country’s legal history - the Ram Mandir-Babri Masjid dispute. The decision to recuse came after Senior Advocate Rajeev Dhavan said that the judge had appeared for former Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Kalyan Singh in a related case in 1997.

YS Jagan mohan reddy
YS Jagan mohan reddyTwitter

In November 2020, the judge recused from hearing a case seeking action against Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister YS Jaganmohan Reddy for raising allegations against present CJI Ramana.

In October 2021, the judge, as the executive chairperson of the NALSA, suggested that law students could act as bridges between the providers and seekers of legal aid.

"We have medical colleges, dental colleges where internship is a matter of compulsion. We don’t want to compel anybody, (but) why not in law colleges that students also give back to society in the form of acting as para legal volunteers, between the providers and seekers of legal aid," he said.

In July 2021, Justice Lalit personally monitored the working and functioning of Lok Adalats through virtual conferencing for the first time, while emphasising that National Lok Adalats are imperative to reduce the huge pendency of cases.

On a lighter note, on the day Justice Rohinton Nariman retired, a lawyer accidentally unmuted himself during a virtual hearing. As a result, the ongoing farewell reference for Justice Nariman was heard in the court of Justice Lalit.

Though the senior lawyer apologised for the disturbance, Justice Lalit said that it was a pleasure to be privy to the reference for Justice Nariman, which would not have been possible but for the mistake.

Why is he in the Spotlight?

Justice Lalit will be sworn in as the 49th Chief Justice of India, albeit for a brief tenure of little over two months.

As the executive chairman of the NALSA, at a recent event, he emphasised on the role of judicial officers to facilitate legal aid to the have-nots in the country.

"As judicial officers, your role is different, but as legal aid officers, you have to ensure that the accused is not unrepresented before the court of law or file applications in time," he highlighted.

In a recent interview with Bar & Bench, he stressed on the importance of infrastructure and talent to achieve the ends of legal aid. He said,

"Legal aid dispensation has to be of good quality. The work done should not be for 'naam ke vaaste' (namesake) but as a mission. If we inculcate this habit, then legal aid dispensation, would have achieved everything."

Also Read
[EXCLUSIVE] Legal aid work should not be "naam ke vaste": Bar & Bench speaks to Justice UU Lalit
Bar and Bench - Indian Legal news