The Bombay High Court’s 41st Chief Justice Dr Manjula Chellur retired on December 4. When she started her career 1978, she was the first woman lawyer in Bellary, Karnataka. She served as a judge for 29 years and as Chief Justice in three different high courts. She was sworn in as the Chief Justice of Bombay High Court in August 2016. During her tenure, she decided a number of important cases impacting Mumbai and Maharashtra. Chellur had set up a committee of two judges to review the Manodhairya scheme that entailed compensation for survivors of violent crimes, the case in which the state government revised its policy to grant police protection to only those who faced a ‘real threat’ and the case in which a bench headed by her refused to allow an increase in fares of the Versova-Andheri-Ghatkopar Metro.
As movers loaded her belongings in a truck at the Chief Justice House in Malabar Hill on Wednesday, Chellur spoke with Ruhi Bhasin & Mayura Janwalkar.
What challenges did you face when you started as the first woman lawyer in Bellary in 1978?
It was a little easier for me because my father had a practice. I did not have to run around like a junior. It is not easy for lady lawyers who have no one (in the same profession) in the family. I wanted to put an end to the inequality between men and women and, therefore, I became a lawyer. After all, we have the same brain and perhaps, more patience. Many did not accept me as a lawyer and said it was atrocious as I entered a 110-year-old institution to practise law. It was the first time they had seen a woman in a black coat. Some people would come searching for the court where the lady lawyer was appearing. It was entertainment for them.
Why do you think there is a huge disparity in the number of women leading in the higher judiciary and the legal profession in comparison to men?
It’s not just in the legal profession. There are different reasons. In the legal profession specifically, odd working hours and family commitments tend to be a drawback as it is not like being a teacher or a bank employee. You can’t just sit in one corner. You have to go to court and do your job. As it is, it’s very competitive and involves so many sacrifices. Sometimes I could not meet my parents, when my daughter would be sick I would wonder if the domestic help had given her the right dosage of medicine. Can I stop thinking like a mother? When I was a TADA judge hearing the Veerappan case in 1998-99, my sister had come and stayed with my children.
You were not elevated to the Supreme Court. Was that disappointing?
That (Supreme Court) was not the goal I had. I wanted to do good work in society. You must do what comes your way and do it with satisfaction. I am very satisfied with the work I have done in the last 29 years. It is all destiny after all.
How would you describe your experience in the Bombay High Court as compared to your earlier stints in Kerala and Kolkata?
My experience has been a mix of everything. In Kerala, there are very literate people who know what is happening in courts. There is no complaint against any judge or among Bar members or subordinate judiciary. Maybe one or two. In Kolkata, there were some complaints about subordinate judiciary regarding quality or judgments not coming on time. But in Mumbai, in every case, litigant wants to complain when orders are against them.
Why do you think there is a higher number of PILs filed in the Bombay High Court in comparison to other high courts?
I feel there is more development in Mumbai in terms of construction, property is more costly, land is less and everybody wants to make the most of it, so the stakes are high. In some cases, like the PIL pertaining to the Manodhairya scheme, providing police protection (to private individuals) and the Metro construction — these were some of the genuine ones. In some cases, people tend to be over-sensitive — like the noise matter. Any construction is bound to make noise. In the case of Metro construction, the Metro has to come up.
One of the issues that you took note of during your tenure was parties-in-person (litigants appearing on their own without being represented by a lawyer). What were your concerns over parties-in-person in Mumbai?
The most number of parties-in-person are in the Bombay High Court. Some of the people are well-to-do or senior citizens. They mean to do good for the society and they think they can handle themselves in certain matters and have too much confidence in themselves. They are so obsessed with their cause that they don’t care for procedure and feel upset when they are told this is not the way it should be done. Some people think they will get justice if they come and make a big scene in the court.
How would you describe your relationship with the media?
What I felt was that there were more wrong reports than right reports. We (judges) make wrong comments but how you write is important. Your interpretation is important. There should be no media trial of cases. It is your duty to report what happens. You should use discretion about what should be reported and what should not. During the hearing regarding the resident doctors’ strike (in March), I had said your profession (doctors) is not equal to labour unions and what was reported was that I said you are behaving like labour unions. This upset me. I got calls from relatives and friends as several of my family members are doctors including my husband. You can change the reputation of a person by writing a wrong report. It projects a wrong image of me in public. I am not a harsh person. I may be strict but I am only human.
A month ago, the family members of sessions judge B H Loya had raised questions over the circumstances under which he died in 2014 in Nagpur.
Did Loya’s family approach you over this issue?
The son had come and handed over a letter to me. He had said he had no grievances in this regard. The letter is kept in the office of the Chief Justice. During your tenure, you had raised questions over the dress code of journalists. What do you think is the appropriate courtroom attire?
Lawyers and judges have a dress code. I don’t expect others to come in a uniform. But if you go jogging, you wear shorts. They can’t be worn when you go to college. You can’t even sit cross-legged in the courtroom. Court is also temple of Justice and one should be moderate colours and dressing and not dazzling colours. You should be decently dressed. After all, media are also officers of court. Maybe it’s just me. It’s my culture. This is how I was brought up. In Kolkata, I had told all staff not to wear jeans and come to court. Visitors coming and going is different, but they also should not be allowed (without proper attire). Some courts have passed orders about what to wear.