Obituary: Leila Seth, pioneering woman judge


Photo credit: Nikhil Kanekal
Photo credit: Nikhil Kanekal

The first female judge of the Delhi High Court, Leila Seth, who broke many glass ceilings during her rise through the male-dominated legal profession, died last Friday (5), aged 86, at her home in Noida in Uttar Pradesh state.

She was thrust into the international spotlight in 2012 when she was appointed to the Justice Verma Committee, a three-member committee formed after the brutal gang rape that took place in Delhi on December 16 of that year. Seth and her fellow members were tasked with recommending amendments to India’s criminal law in order to ensure a quick trial and appropriate punishment for those accused of sexual assault.

Prior to the Justice Verma Committee, Seth was well known in India for her achievements in the legal profession. She became the first woman to top the London Bar examinations in 1958 and the first female chief justice of a state high court (Himachal Pradesh) in 1951 before ascending to the Delhi High Court.

Throughout her career, Seth served on numerous enquiry commissions, including one which studied the effects of television violence on children and one which investigated the death of businessman Rajan Pillai after he was found dead in police custody.

From 1997 to 2000, she was an active member of the Law Commission of India, taking part in implementing the Hindu Succession Act amendments that granted equal property rights to daughters.

In 2003, she published her autobiography On Balance in which she described her early years of homelessness, her pursuit of law while living in England, her later career in India and her experiences as a mother, as well as her views on corruption and discrimination within the legal system.

She later published We, the Children of India, which explains the Preamble to the Constitution of India to younger readers, and Talking Justice: People’s Right in Modern India, in which she discusses the key legal issues she came across throughout her career.

Leila Seth is survived by her three children: author Vikram, peace activist Shantum and filmmaker Aradhana.