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Justice Sujata Manohar was the second woman judge to be elevated to the Supreme Court. She became a Supreme Court judge in 1994 and spent five years at the apex court, before retiring in 1999.
In this interview with Bar & Bench, Justice Manohar speaks about her early years as a litigating lawyer and her time as the first woman judge of the Bombay High Court. She also speaks about judges appointing judges and the current state of the judiciary.
Your father, Kantilal Thakoredas Desai was a renowned lawyer and retired as Chief Justice of the Gujarat High Court.
I come from a family of doctors and lawyers. Our family had a tradition that one son would be a doctor and one son would be a lawyer. We are three sisters, so it was decided that one girl would become a doctor and one would become a lawyer. I was the elder one and I chose law. My sister chose medicine. So, it was sort of automatically decided.
You went on to study at Oxford University.
Yes, I first graduated from Bombay University and then I went to Oxford. I did PPE (Philosophy, Politics, Economics) because my father said that a foreign-based education is much better than doing just law. So I did my PPE and then [was called to the Bar] at Lincoln’s Inn. I returned to India and started practicing at the Bombay High Court.
Nobody took women seriously in those days. I joined the Bar in 1958.
Were there other women litigating at that time?
There were 2 or 3 other woman lawyers but nobody was doing too well. People did not take women very seriously then. They thought women just come here to spend time till they get married. So you would not get that initial support which a junior lawyer requires. And unless you are seen practicing, you don’t get work. It is a vicious circle.
I got a lot of drafting work. In those days, it was a very serious matter if you had to ask for amendment of your pleadings. It was a black mark on the draftsman. So, we had to be careful in drafting pleadings.
Initially, I worked with Mr. KK Desai. Then after he became a High Court judge, I joined Mr. MR Modi. Mostly I was on my own. I practised on the original side.
Did it help to have your father in the same profession?
No, it didn’t help at all because by the time I joined the Bar, he had become a judge and then he went to Gujarat, so I hardly had any time with him. He did advise me on how to draft a pleading. He also gave me very impractical advice that you must draft your pleading by hand. He said that [made the pleadings] short and to the point.
In those days you never wrote down correspondence and things like that. Pleadings were about 6 or 7 pages at the most. Just the essential facts, your cause of action and your prayers.
You did a lot of public interest and pro bono work.
There were several women’s organisations in Bombay. I was in the Maharashtra State Women Council. I was Chairperson of its parliamentary committee and edited the news bulletin and so on.
A lot of women came in for legal advice. In those days, there was no government legal aid, so I did a lot of work for them. I got a fair idea of what problems women face. Most of them don’t even know what their husbands earn to ask for maintenance, and they require guidance.
Just see how unfairly separate laws work for women. For example, a Christian woman came to me and said that her Muslim neighbour recently managed to get a divorce. The Christian lady wanted a divorce as her husband ill-treated her. I told her that under the Indian Divorce Act, you have to prove something more than cruelty; you have to prove adultery or something. She asked if her neighbour can get it, why can’t she? How do you explain a thing like that?
We started an Indian Federation of Women Lawyers whose first President was Mithan Jamshed Lam, the first woman to enroll at the Bombay High Court. She was also the first woman Sheriff of Bombay. When she retired, I became the president and we had a legal aid programme. That was a very satisfying way to help people.
You became a judge of the Bombay High Court in 1978.
At that time, people were not willing to accept judgeship. The salary was 3,500 rupees. So I guess ultimately they had to ask me. I said ok, I don’t mind. I told them during my acceptance speech that I can only accept judgeship because I have a working husband. It was that bad in those days. You got nothing. You had to come in your own car. You were not given any driver. You did not have a telephone in your chambers. Nothing.
Any fond memories as the only woman on the Bench?
I had no problems at all. Everybody was quite friendly and we discussed a lot of cases. Bombay that way, is very open.
Maharashtra was the first state to start a Judicial Training Institute. We called it JOTI and I was the first Chairman of the board of visitors when it started. That was interesting.
Then we decided to start family courts. Another uphill task, as nobody wanted them and we had a lot of problems getting cooperation from the government. We attached trained social counselors to all the family courts. We also decided on the number of judges based on the number of cases. I think that was the first time somebody did that exercise. Then we decided on the number of counselors. We had a special programme to train at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences because there was no training in this type of counseling.
We tried to see that as far as possible in simple matters, we should avoid lawyers because lawyers tend to unnecessarily create problems. So the family courts worked on Saturdays and Sundays and they took weekdays off so that the people who were working could come and argue their case. The first group of judges worked very well. But it is very difficult to break habits. Now, I think everything is back to routine. Nobody is willing to try something different. That is the problem.
You were made Chief Justice of Bombay in 1994 for a few months.
We used to make the best use of the judges that were there. Giving assignments was an important thing. For example, I gave the work to the judge who had specialised in a particular area in his career as a lawyer. It makes disposal faster and satisfying. Another thing I liked were the training programs for the lower judiciary.
The Bombay High Court is one of the only high courts with so many benches – the ones in Nagpur, Goa, Aurangabad. To coordinate their functioning was also important. During my days, we used to send a judge from the high court to each of the benches at least for one term, so that they get an idea about the people on the benches, and they would report about the functioning of the benches.
What are your thoughts on judges appointing judges?
I think you have to have wider consultation for a better selection process. It does not mean that you do not consult your colleagues also. Broadly speaking, whatever be the system, you have to have broad-based consultations with lawyers, and with the government, because the government sometimes has data which you don’t have.
The theory is that the judgments of the judges under you come before you in the appeals. So you see how they write and decide whether they are competent or not competent. However, it does not always work, as you do not always get the judgments of all the people who are under consideration and unless you look at the judgments, it is very difficult to say.
We had a very elaborate system for promoting people. For example, we used to appoint a committee of four senior high court judges and we used to look at judgments of at least the last 3-4 years. The committee would grade the things and call them for an interview and then select people.
In case of [elevation of] lawyers, you only have to rely on your colleagues before whom those lawyers have appeared to see how they have performed and their general reputation and so on. So the wider the consultation, the better it is.
And the same thing is true for judges who are appointed to the Supreme Court. In the sense that you can have their judgments, but there is no system even in the Collegium as far as I know. I don’t know if they have it now. We never had the chance to look at their judgments of the last 4 or 5 years.
Whatever the system, it is how you operate it that makes for a proper solution.
What do you have to say about the current state of the judiciary?
It is hopelessly overworked and once a system is overworked, it malfunctions. Then people take advantage of the delays. They misuse the processes.
Judicial time is very precious. So you have to avoid these useless applications. Concentrate on what can be done and do it properly. Also, I think lawyers have an important role to play. If they are well prepared and argue to the point, the matters can be disposed of very fast. But that does not always happen.
Some people think that the more they argue, the more they impress the clients.
You were elevated to the Supreme Court in 1994. How was that experience?
That experience was very good because sitting in one place, you can see what is happening in the whole country. It was quite interesting. Unfortunately, there was hardly any Constitution Bench sitting during the five years that I was there. It was only during the last 2 or 3 years of my tenure, which is a pity because that should be the main focus of the Supreme Court. But we had some very interesting cases.
Today, there are very few Constitution Benches in the Supreme Court.
PILs were not so readily entertained in those days. In fact, the Supreme Court had suggested that all the judges should have a meeting and decide on principle, what kind of SLPs they would entertain, because SLP was supposed to be an exception and not a rule.
At least in those days, we had decided that the SLPs would only be heard on two days i.e. Mondays and Fridays. I think it is still continuing in some form or the other. So at least there are 3-4 days which are clear for hearings.
At the highest court, you should have more time to think about the legal issues and give a proper judgment which is binding on all the courts. But it is the opposite. You have less and less time as you go higher and higher which is wrong.
As a judge how did you deal with public criticism?
I don’t think in my days there was so much public criticism. If someone criticizes your judgment, that is fine. What is wrong with that?
After you declared reservation for research degrees unconstitutional in one of your judgments, certain pressure groups burnt your effigy. What does a judge do to deal with that?
Nothing, you just ignore it. What do you do? There are all kinds of people in this world. I think this was in Chennai. They were very strong on reservations.
You were also a member of the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC).
It was fascinating. You look at the same things from a different point of view. The classic case was this Vishaka judgment that we gave, myself and Justice Verma. We were both at the NHRC and we had the job of implementing it.
We had to break our heads with the government to make them set up committees in all the government organisations and public sector undertakings. People resist all the time.
In Delhi, some people admit that there is a strong ‘Boys Club’. Did you feel that during your time at the Bombay High Court also?
Well, there were no women to have a women’s club so of course, there was a boys club. But you can’t blame them also because they go by their past experience that so and so left after one year etc. Somebody also told me when I joined the Bar – ‘Well, what are you doing here? Are you looking for a good husband?’