Meet Leila Seth

The First Female Chief Justice of India

By Google Arts & Culture

Illustrations by Ruchita Bait Gavhane

Justice Leila Seth, first woman to become Chief Justice of a state High Court by Ruchita Bait Gavhane

Before Leila Seth, men dominated India's legal system. Then, on 5 August 1991 – nearly 130 years since the first high court was established in India – Leila Seth became the first female Chief Justice, serving at Himachal Pradesh High Court.

Leila Seth was a pioneer who made it possible for many other Indian women to pursue careers in law. Always committed to justice for the victims of human rights abuses, she was a campaigner until the end of her life.

Justice Leila Seth, first woman to become Chief Justice of a state High Court by Ruchita Bait Gavhane

An Early Struggle

Leila Seth was born on 20 October 1930 in Lucknow, United Provinces, British India. Her parents held progressive ideals, ensuring that their only daughter was treated the same as their two sons – something that influenced Leila’s perspective early on in life.

Her father, who worked in the Imperial Railway Service, died when Leila was 11 – a devastating event for the child. After that, her family struggled financially, though Leila’s mother managed to have her daughter educated at Loreto Convent in Darjeeling.

Following her schooling, she began work in Kolkata as a stenographer, where she met her husband – a man named Prem Seth. After her marriage, Leila joined her new husband in London, where he worked for the footwear and fashion accessory corporation Bata. 

It was in London that Leila Seth’s life changed forever.  

Justice Leila Seth, first woman to become Chief Justice of a state High Court by Ruchita Bait Gavhane

The London Bar

Once in London, Leila decided to study law. More than any other reason, she chose law because the subject didn’t require attending classes – something that would have been difficult for Leila as a new mother.

Justice Leila Seth, first woman to become Chief Justice of a state High Court by Ruchita Bait Gavhane

In 1958, Leila took her London Bar exam, and topped it, becoming the first woman ever to do so. 

This moment would mark the beginning of her illustrious career. Curiously, though, the British newspapers expressed regret that a married woman had topped the London Bar, as they predicted that her great achievement would come to nothing.

Justice Leila Seth, first woman to become Chief Justice of a state High Court by Ruchita Bait Gavhane

Return to India

The British newspapers need not have worried, though, as Leila returned to India and began her legal career in earnest at Patna High Court. She faced discrimination and suspicion there, too – while working under a senior lawyer, he asked her why, as a married woman, was she working. 

During the 10 years she worked at Patna High Court there were many similar occurrences – sometimes, for instance, clients would question her competence as a woman, or even demand a male lawyer. 

Eventually, her talent was recognised, though discrimination would dog her throughout her life.   

Justice Leila Seth, first woman to become Chief Justice of a state High Court by Ruchita Bait Gavhane

In any case, her career progressed successfully. In 1972, she moved to Delhi High Court, where she dealt with original civil petitions, criminal matters, company petitions, revisions and appeals.

Then, after serving on a panel of lawyers for the West Bengal government in the Supreme Court, she was designated as a senior advocate by the Supreme Court in 1977. In 1978, Seth became a Judge of the Delhi High Court, becoming the first woman to do so. 

Justice Leila Seth, first woman to become Chief Justice of a state High Court by Ruchita Bait Gavhane

Chief Justice Leila Seth

The crowning moment of her career was yet to come. In 1991, Justice Leila Seth became the first female judge to be appointed as a Chief Justice of a state high court, when she was assigned the role at Himachal Pradesh.

Even at such lofty heights, gender discrimination was rife. “They were not used to a woman sitting on their head,” she said. “But as I was a mother of two boys, I knew how to handle men sensitively. I would gently ask their opinions first before ‘imposing’ mine on them.”

Justice Leila Seth, first woman to become Chief Justice of a state High Court by Ruchita Bait Gavhane

In later years, Seth chaired a number of judicial and humanitarian institutions. Among her greatest achievements was her lead role in the 15th Law Commission of India. 

She spearheaded the change in inheritance laws for women, allowing daughters to inherit ancestral property.

Far into the 21st century, Leila Seth was still making an impact. She was a part of the three-member Justice Verma Commission instituted after the 2012 Nirbhaya gang rape case, a commision set up to overhaul India’s rape laws and provide better protection for women.

Justice Leila Seth, first woman to become Chief Justice of a state High Court by Ruchita Bait Gavhane

Leila Seth, a trailblazer for Indian women, died in 2017.

Credits: Story

Illustrations by Ruchita Bait Gavhane

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