Justice Uday Umesh Lalit, who will become the 49th Chief Justice of India (CJI) on August 27 for a short tenure of 74 days, is regarded in legal circles for his sobriety and “very measured and balanced pace and tone.” He is an epitome of patience and innate civility, members of the Supreme Court Bar say, but add that he is also quite capable of the firmness required for his vocation.
Justice Lalit is only the second judge after Justice SM Sikri to be elevated directly from the Bar to the post of the CJI.
Among the several landmark judgements that Lalit has been part of, one that held the practice of “instant triple talaq” among the Muslims community as “illegal and unconstitutional”, was the most noted. He was part of the five-judge bench, that by a 3-2 majority in 2017, ruled against the practice and affirmed gender justice.
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Another bench he was part of went on to rule that the erstwhile royal family of Travancore had the management right over the Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple in Kerala, one of the richest shrines in the country. Justice Lalit, who as a lawyer acted as amicus curiae (friend of the court) in a lot of environment and pollution matters, also settled a contentious issue by holding that a six-month waiting period under the Hindu Marriage Act for divorce by mutual consent, is not mandatory.
One of his judgements which faced serious criticism is the one that watered down provisions of the the SC/ST Prevention of Atrocities Act. The Parliament later amended the law to undo it.
Prior to his elevation as a judge of the apex court, he specialised in criminal law. He was also Special Public Prosecutor for the CBI to conduct trials in all the 2G spectrum scam cases.
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Says Rajya Sabha member and senior SC lawyer Abhishek Singhvi, “Justice Lalit is understated in all he does, but is solid and thorough.” Recalling the time when the CJI-in-waiting was a member of the Bar, Singhvi says Justice Lalit has been a particularly adept practitioner of criminal law. “His persona has always had gravitas. He was firstly a lawyer and a gentleman and later a judge and a gentleman.”
Junior members of the Bar say he listens patiently to every lawyer during the hearings, irrespective of what he or she is. “He treats everyone equally, whether seniors or juniors, and also gives a reason for dismissing any petition. This is the best and a rare quality in him,” says SC lawyer Pragya Baghel.
Lawyer Amol Chitale, who worked with Justice Lalit in his chamber, says that as a boss he was extremely patient. Despite he being one of the busiest counsels, any junior would walk up to him for any guidance/discussions and he would help them without any demur.
People close to him say that he is religious, a “total family man,” vegetarian and a teetotaller.
Born in 1957, he joined the Bar in 1983, and started his practice at the Bombay High Court till 1985. He shifted to Delhi in January 1986 and worked with the former Attorney-General Soli J Sorabjee from 1986 to 1992. He was designated senior advocate by the Supreme Court in April 2004. His father, U R Lalit, was also a lawyer, who later became a judge in the Bombay HC. His wife Amita runs a school in Noida and one of his two sons is a lawyer.
During his tenure, Lalit recused himself from several high-profile cases, be it Yakub Menon’s plea for review of the capital punishment decision in the 1993 Mumbai serial blasts case or the Ayodhya hearing where he had appeared as a lawyer for former Uttar Pradesh chief minister Kalyan Singh in a case related to the Babri Masjid demolition.
He has sought to impart discipline to the way court functions. He grabbed eyeballs recently when he said he favoured court proceedings to start early and suggested that the Supreme Court benches should start at 9 am and finish by 2 pm.