New Delhi: Justice Uday Umesh Lalit was sworn in as India’s 49th Chief Justice on Saturday, following NV Ramana to the highest judicial post. As Lalit goes having a short term of only 74 days as CJI, he has already set his priorities.
A few days before the judge took over the high office, the Supreme Court registry notified a list of 25 Constitution Bench questions that will be addressed on August 29 – the first day that Lalit will chair the CJI.
Coming at a time when there has been growing criticism of the highest court for the selective way of listing and not hearing important cases on important constitutional issues, the opinion was greeted as a “pleasant surprise” by legal experts.
It also comes at a time when legal experts believe the status of the highest court has shrunk over the years from a constitutional authority to an ordinary appellate body.
But the review also speaks to Lalit’s vision as a CJI. In a few of his recent interviews, he shared his views on having a Five-judge permanent constitutional court in the upper court.
A day before his takeover, Justice Lalit shared a list of things he intends to do during his short tenure as Chief Justice, indicating he is serious in the next 74 days. Speaking at the farewell ceremony held for the outgoing CJI NV Ramana, Justice Lalit spelled out the key areas he is likely to focus on to bring administrative efficiency to the Supreme Court.
His top priority, he said, would be to make the lists as simple, clear and transparent as possible.
Besides performing judicial functions, a CJI is also expected to look into administrative matters, including listing cases. As master of the file, a CJI is given administrative powers to assign sensitive cases to respective benches, form constitution benches, and issue instructions for listing cases.
However, over the past two years the listing of cases has been a bone of contention in the Supreme Court, with lawyers complaining that cases are not being listed despite court orders.
In his speech on Thursday, Justice Lalit also promised to ensure a clear regime where any urgent matters can be mentioned freely before the respective courts.
Shortly after being sworn in on Saturday, Justice Lalit traveled to the Supreme Court to hold a meeting with registry officials. Sources at the highest court confirmed to ThePrint that the CJI had summoned officials to draw up a new registration plan.
At 2 p.m. today, the new CJI will also meet with colleagues in plenary to deliberate on administrative matters, in particular the Bar Association’s grievance regarding the non-registration of cases.
Raised directly to the Supreme Court of the Bar in August 2014, Lalit is the sixth lawyer to achieve this feat and is the only second judge after Justice SM Sikri to hold the post of CJI.
Looking back on Lalit’s elevation, Supreme Court lawyer Haris Beeran said it was a loss for the bar.
“He was an essential lawyer and a jack-of-all-trades. But the way he shaped himself as a judge, especially his temperament and his understanding of all matters, he also stood out on the bench. He is and always will be a careful gentleman judge,” Beeran said.
By all accounts, Lalit has had a distinguished career as a lawyer, representing high-profile clients, such as Bollywood actor Salman Khan and cricketer-turned-politician Navjot Singh Sidhu have been appointed as special prosecutors in the 2G case.
As a bench member of the Supreme Court, he was also involved in several notable judgments, including the 2017 triple talaq verdict. Hopes are now high for Lalit’s tenure as CJI.
Supreme Court lawyer Sunil Fernandes told ThePrint that he was confident that the new CJI will “rectify some of the Supreme Court’s institutional anomalies” and leave the Supreme Court “a better place than it had inherited”.
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From Lawyer to Judge SC
UU Lalit registered as a barrister in June 1983 and began his practice at the Bombay High Court, where he worked until 1985. He moved to Delhi in January 1986 and worked with former Attorney General Soli J Sorabjee from 1986 to 1992.
His father, Senior Counsel UR Lalit, was appointed as an additional judge of the Nagpur Bench of Bombay HC. However, he was not confirmed as a High Court judge after delivering a verdict against the then Congress government during the emergency.
In 2004, the Supreme Court appointed UU Lalit as lead counsel.
As a lawyer, he was known for his expertise in criminal law and had represented many high-profile clients, including some politicians. He appeared for actor Salman Khan in the Blackbuck casecricketer turned politician Navjot Singh Sidhu in hit-and-run caseand former Punjab chief minister Amarinder Singh in corruption case.
in 2011, the Supreme Court asked the central government to appoint him as a special prosecutor in the 2G trial, due to his good reputation.
Shortly thereafter, in 2014, Lalit became the sixth straight attorney to be elevated to the Supreme Court as a judge.
Supreme Court lawyer Astha Sharma, who regularly briefed Lalit when he was a lawyer, remembers him for his honesty and integrity.
“I learned one of the most valuable lessons of my life as a lawyer from him, and that is to never give dishonest advice to my client,” she told ThePrint, adding that she was looking forward to Lalit’s mandate, even if it will be short-lived.
“While being patient with the younger generation to present their cases and make their case, Justice Lalit has a way of ensuring that justice is served and fairness is maintained,” she said.
Fernandes also pointed out that Lalit has all the makings of a distinguished CJI.
“It gives me immense pride to see Justice Lalit gracing the highest judicial office in the land. He was a member of the Supreme Court bar and a distinguished lawyer prior to his well-deserved elevation to the bench,” Fernandes told ThePrint.
As a bench member of the Supreme Court, Lalit participated in several important judgments.
He was one of five Constitutional Court judges who in August 2017 ruled that the practice of instant triple talaq was unconstitutional by a 3-2 majority.
In November last year, a court he led overturned two controversial Bombay High Court judgments that found touching a child’s breast without skin-to-skin contact did not qualify as assault sexual under the Protection of Children from Sexual Offenses Act (POCSO). The SC held that “sexual intent” was the “most important element” constituting sexual assault.
The Supreme Court panel also decided not to appoint the Bombay HC judge in question as a permanent member of the court. She was demoted as a district judge, following which she filed her papers.
In 2019, Lalit was appointed as one of the judges to hear the Ayodhya title trial. But the judge recused himself after one of the parties reminded him that he had appeared for former Uttar Pradesh chief minister Kalyan Singh in the criminal case related to the demolition of Babri Masjid.
Last month, a court headed by Lalit sentenced fugitive businessman Vijay Mallya, found guilty of contempt of court, to four months in prison and a 2,000 rupee fine. He had also led the bench that found Mallya in contempt of court.
‘Passionate about NALSA’
Fernandes described Lalit as a polite but firm person who has a “rare grasp of civil, criminal and constitutional matters”. To add to that, is also a supporter of social justice.
This unique combination was on display when the judge took the reins last year as chairman of the National Legal Services Authority (NALSA), a statutory body which provides free legal assistance to the poor.
Lalit traveled for 42 days on a legal awareness campaign which was launched in October last year and visited remote areas to oversee the arrangements.
Speaking to ThePrint, one of his family members said: ‘As a judge he had little time for recreational activity but he became really passionate about the projects under NALSA. True to his nature, he framed programs that reached every person across the country, educating citizens about their legal and constitutional rights.”
Lalit didn’t even let Covid get in the way of NALSA’s legal aid programs. When pandemic restrictions were in place, NALSA organized digital lok adalats and out of court resolved hundreds of thousands of pre-litigation and court-referred disputes.
(Edited by Uttara Ramaswamy)
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