New Delhi: Justice Uday Umesh Lalit was sworn in Saturday as India’s 49th Chief Justice of India, following N.V. Ramana to the top judicial post. While Lalit will have a short tenure of only 74 days as a CJI, he has already set out his priorities.
Days before the judge took charge of the top office, the Supreme Court registry notified a list of 25 Constitution Bench matters that will be taken up on 29 August — the first day when Lalit will preside as the CJI.
Coming at a time when there has been growing criticism against the top court for the selective manner of listing and not hearing important cases on significant constitutional issues, the notice has been welcomed as a “pleasant surprise” by legal experts.
It also comes at a time when legal experts feel the top court’s status has over the years got reduced from a constitutional authority to an ordinary appellate forum.
But the notice also bears testimony to Lalit’s vision as the CJI. In a couple of his recent interviews, he shared his views on having a permanent five-judge Constitution Bench in the top court.
A day before he took charge, Justice Lalit shared a list of things he intends to do during his short tenure as chief justice, indicating he means business in the next 74 days. Speaking at the farewell function organised for outgoing CJI N.V. Ramana, Justice Lalit spelt out the key areas where he is likely to focus to bring administrative efficiency in the Supreme Court.
His top priority, he said, would be to make listings as simple, clear and transparent as possible.
Apart from carrying out judicial functions, a CJI is also expected to look into administrative issues, including listing of cases. As master of the roster, a CJI is equipped with administrative powers to allot sensitive cases to respective benches, form constitution benches and issue instructions to list cases.
However, in the last couple of years, listing of cases has been a bone of contention in the Supreme Court, with advocates complaining that matters do not get listed despite court orders.
In his speech Thursday, Justice Lalit also promised to ensure a clear-cut regime where any urgent matters can freely be mentioned before respective courts.
Soon after his swearing-in-ceremony Saturday, Justice Lalit headed to the Supreme Court to hold a meeting with registry officials. Sources in the top court confirmed to ThePrint that the CJI had summoned officials to work out a new listing plan.
CJI Lalit also addressed a full-court meeting of all Supreme Court judges on Saturday afternoon. The deliberations, sources said, went on for two hours following which certain crucial decisions were taken regarding constitution of three-judges bench and special benches.
Those familiar with the developments said it was decided to set up “one or two” constitution benches and “six three-judge benches” on priority basis. This is because there are many many references to three-judges pending, people quoted above added.
The three-judge benches will sit in the first half of the day on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. These benches will first take up regular cases in the first half of the day and in the second half will hear miscellaneous matters in which notices have been issued.
While Monday will be dedicated to fresh miscellaneous matters, Fridays too will be devoted to after-notice miscellaneous matters.
Elevated directly to the Supreme Court from the Bar in August 2014, Lalit is the sixth lawyer to achieve this feat and is the only second judge after Justice S.M. Sikri to occupy the post of the CJI.
Looking back at Lalit’s elevation, Supreme Court advocate Haris Beeran said it was a loss to the Bar.
“He was a go-to counsel and an all-rounder. But the way he has shaped out as a judge, particularly his temperament and his grasp on all subjects, he has stood out on the Bench as well. He is and will always be a thorough gentleman judge,” Beeran said.
By all accounts, Lalit has had a distinguished career as a lawyer, from representing high-profile clients, like Bollywood actor Salman Khan and cricketer-turned-politician Navjot Singh Sidhu, to being appointed special prosecutor in the 2G case.
As a member of the Supreme Court bench, too, he has been part of several notable judgments, including the 2017 triple talaq verdict. Hopes now run high about Lalit’s tenure as CJI.
Supreme Court advocate Sunil Fernandes told ThePrint he is confident that the new CJI will “rectify some of the institutional anomalies in the Supreme Court” and leave the top court “a better place than what he had inherited”.
From lawyer to SC judge
U.U. Lalit enrolled as a lawyer in June 1983 and started 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, the senior advocate U.R. Lalit, was appointed as an additional judge of Bombay HC’s Nagpur Bench. He, however, was not confirmed as a judge of the high court after he delivered a verdict against then Congress government during the Emergency.
In 2004, the Supreme Court designated U.U. Lalit as a senior advocate.
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 case, cricketer-turned-politician Navjot Singh Sidhu in the hit-and-run case, and former Punjab chief minister Amarinder Singh in a corruption case.
in 2011, the Supreme Court asked the central government to appoint him as a special prosecutor in the 2G trial case, owing to his clean reputation.
Shortly thereafter, in 2014, Lalit became the sixth lawyer directly to be elevated to the Supreme Court as a judge.
Supreme Court advocate-on-record Astha Sharma, who regularly briefed Lalit when he was a lawyer, remembers him for his honesty and integrity.
“I have learnt one of the most valuable lessons in my life as a counsel from him, and that is never to give dishonest advice to my client,” she told ThePrint, adding that she was looking forward to Lalit’s tenure, even though it would be a short one.
“While being patient to the younger generation to present their cases and advance arguments, Justice Lalit has a way of ensuring that justice is delivered and equities are maintained,” she said.
Fernandes, too, emphasised that Lalit had all the makings of a distinguished CJI.
“It gives me immense pride to see Justice Lalit adorn the highest judicial office of the land. He was a fellow member of the Supreme Court Bar and a distinguished senior advocate before his eminently well-deserved elevation to the bench,” Fernandes told ThePrint.
As a member of the Supreme Court bench, Lalit has been a part of several important judgements.
He was one of the five judges in the Constitution Bench that, in August 2017, held that the practice of instant triple talaq was unconstitutional by a majority of 3:2.
In November last year, a bench led by him quashed two controversial judgements of the Bombay High Court, which had held that groping a child’s breast without skin-to-skin contact could not be termed as sexual assault under the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act. The SC maintained that “sexual intent” was “the most important ingredient” constituting sexual assault.
In 2019, Lalit was named as one of the judges to hear the Ayodhya title suit. 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 connected to the demolition of Babri Masjid.
Last month, a bench led by Lalit sentenced fugitive businessman Vijay Mallya, who was found guilty of contempt of court, to four months of imprisonment and Rs 2,000 fine. He had also headed the bench that convicted Mallya for contempt of court.
‘Passionate about NALSA’
Fernandes described Lalit as a polite but firm person who has a “rare mastery over civil, criminal, and constitutional issues”. To add to that, is also a proponent of social justice.
This unique combination was on display when the judge took over the reins last year as the chairman of the National Legal Services Authority (NALSA), a statutory body that provides free legal assistance to the poor.
Lalit travelled for 42 days during an outreach campaign on legal awareness that was launched in October last year and visited far-flung areas to oversee the arrangements.
Speaking to ThePrint, one of his family members said: “As a judge, he hardly had time for any recreational activity, but he became truly passionate about the projects under NALSA. True to his nature, he mentored the programmes that reached every person across the country, spread awareness amongst the citizens about their legal and constitutional rights”.
Lalit didn’t let even Covid hamper NALSA’s legal aid programmes. When pandemic restrictions were in place, NALSA organised digital lok adalats and amicably resolved lakhs of pre-litigation and court-referred disputes.
(Edited by Uttara Ramaswamy)