Women of the Indian Judiciary: Justice Sujata Manohar

In this series, the authors chronicle the impact women judges have rendered during their tenures.
Women of the Indian Judiciary: Justice Sujata Manohar

Women of the Indian judiciary is a series that celebrates former women Supreme Court and High Court judges.

In this series, the authors chronicle the impact women judges have rendered during their tenures.

The first female judge and Chief Justice of the Bombay High Court, Justice Sujata Manohar went on to become the second woman judge of the apex court. She had a profound impact on the Indian judiciary with her commitment to upholding rule of law. By addressing the issues of discrimination and violence against women through her verdicts, Justice Manohar showed her dedication to the cause of women's rights and gender equality.

In 2021, she was one among eight outstanding female jurists and leaders from around the world who was awarded the Ruth Bader Ginsburg Medal of Honor, an international accolade established by the World Jurist Association.

Justice Manohar was born on August 28, 1934. She studied at esteemed institutions such as Anandilal Podar High School and Bombay Elphinstone College in Bombay. Her pursuit of knowledge led her across borders to Lady Margaret Hall in Oxford University, and to Lincoln’s Inn in London. She enrolled as an advocate on February 14, 1958, in Bombay. She went on to become assistant government pleader at the city civil court in Bombay during 1970-71. She was elevated as an additional judge of the Bombay High Court on January 23, 1978, and secured permanent judgeship on November 28, 1978. Over the course of her career, she served as Chief Justice at both the Bombay High Court and the Kerala High Court.

In 1986, Justice Manohar was one of two Indian High Court judges chosen to participate in a course on patent trials held in Beijing under the auspices of the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO) and the United Nations.

She was appointed as a judge of the Supreme Court of India on November 8, 1994 and retired in the year 1999. She has made significant contributions to the field of jurisprudence, which led to important legal changes, particularly in the areas of women's rights and sexual harassment and domestic violence. Additionally, her approach to environmental law was to balance sustainable development and environmental preservation, profoundly shaping India's environmental legislation and policies.

Justice Manohar is also known for her pivotal role in shaping the Vishakha guidelines of 1997 to combat workplace sexual harassment. She recently highlighted the limitations of the 2013 Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace Act. Justice Manohar stressed on the need to adapt the law to address delayed complaints, particularly when the alleged harasser has left the organisation. She suggested innovative approaches such as inter-state committees and the education of key stakeholders, including committee members, judges and society at large. Justice Manohar emphasized that the absence of a specific time limit for reporting incidents under the penal code allows women to come forward, even for older cases, while underscoring the need for substantiating claims to ensure justice.

Her judgment in the case of Commissioner of Income Tax, Tamil Nadu v. S Balasubramanian dealt with the taxation treatment of a Hindu Undivided Family's (HUF) partial partition under the Income Tax Act, 1961. The Court ruled that the partial partition itself does not constitute a "transfer," but the subsequent sale of distributed assets triggers the withdrawal of development rebate. The decision emphasizes the need to integrate various sections of the Income Tax Act, ensures adherence to statutory conditions for claiming benefits and contributes to the understanding of tax implications in HUF scenarios.

After her illustrious judicial career, Justice Manohar held the prestigious distinction of being one of only five distinguished female judges globally invited to constitute a tribunal at the World Women's Congress for a Healthy Planet in Miami, in November 1991. This conference played a crucial role in shaping the Women's Action Agenda 21, and her active involvement demonstrated her dedication to global issues.

Apart from her international engagements, she was one of the three delegates appointed by the Government of India to represent the country at the International Conference of Law, Social Development and Social Welfare in West Berlin in 1988, under the auspices of the International Council of Social Work. Additionally, she played a key role in the Special Group of Family Law and held the unique distinction of serving as the inaugural Chairperson of the Board of Visitors at the Judicial Officers Training Institute in Nagpur. Furthermore, she assumed the position of Chairperson of the Committee of Judges established by the Bombay High Court, playing a pivotal role in establishing family courts in Maharashtra.

Justice Manohar's diverse contributions showcase her steadfast commitment to improving both the legal system and social well-being on a global scale. Her valuable insights illuminate the changing landscape of addressing workplace harassment in India, emphasizing the necessity for a responsive and fair legal framework. Justice Manohar's unwavering dedication to judicial activism, particularly in public interest litigation, served as a strong defence for the rights of marginalized communities. Her steadfast defence of free speech and press freedom, dedicated advocacy for child rights, and significant contributions to legal education mark key milestones in her distinguished career. Her legacy continues to inspire legal practitioners and scholars, firmly establishing her as a prominent figure in the intricate fabric of Indian jurisprudence.

Nabeela Siddiqui is an Assistant Professor at VMLS, Chennai.

Amisha P Dash is a Student at CHRIST (Deemed to be University).

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