Justice Fast-Forward: The rise of CJI U U Lalit from the Bar to the top-most office in Supreme Court

On August 26, a day before taking oath as the 49th Chief Justice of India, Justice Uday Umesh Lalit, speaking at the farewell hosted for his predecessor, announced his goals for his 74-day stint at the top office — from setting up at least one Constitution bench that would sit through the year to ensuring smoother methods for listing cases and allowing lawyers to effectively ‘mention’ their cases for listing.

For those who have known Justice Lalit, first as an advocate-on-record before the Supreme Court and later as a designated senior advocate, it is this work ethic that defines him.

“There has not been a CJI who perhaps understands this court and the bottlenecks in the registry better than Lalit. As an AOR for over a decade, he has dealt with this every day. As a senior advocate, he has a vision of what the court ought to be,” a senior advocate said.

Born in 1957 in Maharashtra’s Solapur, Justice Lalit shifted his nascent two-year practice from Mumbai to Delhi in 1986. This was when his father, a former additional judge of the Nagpur bench of the Bombay High Court, lost his office during the Emergency and had also set up new practice in Delhi. Justice Umesh Ranganath Lalit had in 1975 granted bail to three minors in a sedition case, which did not go down well with the Indira Gandhi-led Congress government. The judge’s links with the RSS and its lawyers’ wing, Adhivakta Parishad, did not help his case to get appointed as a permanent judge.

After working in the chambers of ace lawyer P H Parekh and former Attorney General for India Soli Sorabjee, Justice U U Lalit set up his independent practice. As advocate-on-record, his practice took shape in a modest flat in east Delhi’s Mayur Vihar. From there, he rose to be one of the top lawyers in the Supreme Court, arguing 15-20 cases on Mondays and Fridays, when the SC admits fresh cases. For over a decade, he was the amicus curie (friend of the court) for the ‘forest bench’ that was hearing environmental cases.

Although his reputation as a criminal law expert, who defended celebrity and high-profile clients — he represented Salman Khan in the blackbuck poaching case and Andhra Pradesh CM Y S Jagan Mohan Reddy in the disproportionate assets case — precedes him, many say it is a misconception.

“His father had an exclusive criminal practice but Justice Lalit’s practice has always been independent of that. As a senior advocate, he had a mixed bag of cases, with perhaps more civil than criminal,” says a lawyer who has been Justice Lalit’s contemporary.

Despite his rich, famous and powerful clientele — from former Punjab chief minister Amarinder Singh to former UP CM Mayawati, Congress leader Navjot Singh Sidhu (then with the BJP) and superstar Salman Khan — as a lawyer, the shy and reticent Lalit has perhaps never spoken to the media.

In 2014, he became a judge of the Supreme Court — only the second CJI to be directly elevated from the Bar to the apex court bench. The first, Justice S M Sikri, had made history when he presided over the 13-judge Kesavananda Bharati bench in 1973 that came up with the landmark verdict outlining the doctrine of basic structure of the Indian Constitution.

A deeply spiritual man, Justice Lalit is known to participate in Ganesh pujas and visit shrines of Sufi saints. Few know that for over 30 years, he has been making an annual pilgrimage to a ‘Baba ki Dargah’, a shrine in Nagpur’s Civil Lines where he offers his service. Moments after Justice Lalit took oath, he sought the blessings of the custodian of the dargah, who was seated next to him in Rashtrapati Bhawan.

“He is a Delhi lawyer but not the quintessential one who networks and throws names. His day always started very early — chambers to court, then back to chambers. No media, no spotlight on him and definitely no political associations,” says a former colleague.

In court, Justice Lalit insists on recording in his orders the names of the advocates and refers to almost everyone appearing before him — from Ram Jethmalani and Fali Nariman to young lawyers — as ‘sir’ and ‘ma’am’.

Another reform that Justice Lalit has talked about, much to the chagrin of some lawyers, is that court proceedings would start at 9 am instead of the usual 10.30 am. Justice Lalit himself comes to the court early to use the gym before the day’s work begins.

As the most senior judge of the Supreme Court, he is known for his work with the National Legal Services Authority, especially during the pandemic, on access to legal aid for undertrials. During his tenure as an SC judge, Justice Lalit has been part of some crucial interventions, including on reforming the sentencing procedure on death penalty. On criminal matters such as bail and procedural safeguards, his record has been mixed.

In 2017, he was part of two benches, along with Justice Adarsh Goel (since retired), that cited misuse of special laws that prohibit atrocities against SC/STs and unlawful demands for dowry. In both cases, the bench went on to put in place “procedural safeguards” against misuse which were criticised for diluting the special laws without any empirical assessment of the misuse. Both verdicts were reviewed subsequently, with an amendment passed to undo the effect on the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act.

Now, as Justice Lalit works on his goals, including that starting tomorrow, five-judge Constitution benches will hear some of the long-pending cases, he will have his eyes on the clock — he is scheduled to retire on November 8.

“It’s true that it’s a short tenure. But I don’t consider that because perception-wise, according to me, it’s as good and as big a tenure as the opportunity can (offer) actually…It is an opportunity which has been given to me. I will make the most of it, in terms of laying down certain things which I consider to be healthy practices,” Justice Lalit had told The Indian Express in an interview on August 14.

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