ON 5 AUGUST 1991, Leila Seth was named the chief justice of the High Court of Himachal Pradesh, making her the first woman in the country to hold the senior-most judicial position in a high court. Seth broke many gender barriers over her legal career, during which she also became the first woman to top the London Bar examination, in 1958, as well as the first female judge of the Delhi High Court, in 1978.
As a jurist, Seth defended the rights of women and minorities. For example, while a member of the Law Commission, she helped recommend an amendment to the Hindu Succession Act to ensure equal succession rights for daughters in Hindu families. She was also heavily critical of the Supreme Court when, in 2014, it issued a judgment re-criminalising sodomy under Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code. In an opinion piece titled ‘India: You’re Criminal If Gay,’ Seth wrote that the Supreme Court had failed to empathise with the individuals who would face even greater hardship due to the verdict.
Seth is perhaps most vividly remembered for her role as a member of the Justice JS Verma Committee, which reviewed the country’s laws against sexual crimes in the aftermath of the Jyoti Singh gang-rape case of 2012. The committee reflected Seth’s own views regarding the ineffectiveness of the death penalty as a deterrent against heinous offences. Seth died of a cardiac arrest on 6 May this year—the day after four of the convicts in the gang-rape case were sentenced to death.