A Look at Justice U.U. Lalit's Career, India's Next Chief Justice

Prior to his elevation as a judge in August 2014, Justice Lalit’s career as a lawyer involved several high-profile and controversial cases, including representing Amit Shah in the alleged Sohrabuddin Sheikh fake encounter case.

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Chief Justice of India (CJI) N.V. Ramana on August 4 recommended Justice Uday Umesh Lalit as his successor, which was confirmed by President Droupadi Murmu on August 10. CJI Ramana is set to retire on August 26. Justice Lalit will assume charge on August 27.

As per the constitution, Supreme Court judges are meant to retire by the age of 65. Justice Lalit will have a brief tenure of less than three months. He will turn 65 in November when he will be required to demit office.

Hailing from Maharashtra, Justice Lalit was born on November 9, 1957 and joined the bar in June 1983 to practice in the Bombay high court. He later practiced in the Supreme Court from 1986, with the top court designating him as a senior advocate in 2004.

Lalit’s father, U.R. Lalit, was also a senior advocate and served as additional judge of the Delhi high court. Both father and son built their legal practice primarily in the field of criminal law, and the then-lawyer Lalit was also appointed as amicus curiae under various Supreme Court benches.

Prior to his elevation as a judge in August 2014, Justice Lalit’s career as a lawyer also involved several high-profile and controversial cases. For instance, he represented Amit Shah in the purported fake encounter killings of Sohrabuddin Sheikh and Tulsiram Prajapati.

The killings of Sheikh, his wife Kauserbi, and associate Tulsiram Prajapati were all part of a series of alleged cover-ups which put the then Gujarat home minister Amit Shah as well as the state’s Narendra Modi-led government under legal scrutiny. The same case was also linked to a controversy over the newly formed Modi government sending back the recommendation of senior advocate Gopal Subramanium for judgeship. Bar & Bench reported that Lalit’s appointment as a Supreme Court judge came as a replacement for Subramanium.

Subramanium, who had previously been appointed as the solicitor general under the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government, wrote that he was being targeted for displaying “independence and integrity” for his role in assisting the court in the 2005 case involving the alleged extrajudicial killing of Sohrabuddin Sheikh.

Meanwhile, Firstpost had reported that Subramanium’s rejection was based on a Central Bureau of Investigation report which claimed that he had privately met the counsel for A. Raja during the 2G spectrum case, a charge he had denied.

In an unprecedented move, then CJI R.M. Lodha went on record to say that the National Democratic Alliance-led government had “segregated” Subramanium’s file “unilaterally” and without the CJI’s knowledge and consent.

Justice U.U. Lalit and CJI N.V. Ramana. Photo: By arrangement

As a lawyer, Lalit had also appeared as the special prosecutor in the 2G spectrum trial and counsel for actor Salman Khan, who was accused in the blackbuck poaching case. He had also represented Congress leader Navjot Singh Sidhu in a culpable homicide case and former chief minister of Punjab, Amarinder Singh, in a corruption case, among others.

Notably, Justice Lalit had also represented former Uttar Pradesh chief minister and late Bharatiya Janata Party leader Kalyan Singh in a 1994 contempt case related to the demolition of the Babri Masjid. As a judge, Lalit recused himself from hearing the Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid land title case in 2019, after senior advocate Rajeev Dhavan pointed this out during the hearings.

DNA also reported that as a lawyer, Lalit represented the government in a sedition case, opposing the bail plea of Dr. Binayak Sen.

Lalit was also part of the five-judge constitution bench in the 2017 ‘triple talaq’ judgment of Shayara Bano versus Union of India where a 3:2 majority held the practice of instant triple talaq or ‘talaq-e-biddat’ to be “unconstitutional” and “manifestly arbitrary”, and set it aside.

In July 2020, Lalit led the two-judge bench which upheld the rights of the erstwhile Travancore royals to manage and administer the affairs of Thiruvananthapuram’s Sree Padmanabha Swamy Temple, one of the richest temples in the world.

Later in 2021, he also led a three-judge bench which reversed the Bombay high court’s widely criticised “skin-to-skin” ruling. Prior to this, two judgments of the Bombay high court’s Nagpur bench had noted that “skin-to-skin contact” between the child and the accused was a required ingredient to constitute a case under the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act (POCSO Act). The apex court bench, headed by Justice Lalit, held that this was a narrow interpretation of the POCSO Act’s relevant provisions.

Lalit was also part of the bench which declined bail to activist Gautam Navlakha in the Elgar Parishad-Maoist link case of Bhima Koregaon in Maharashtra.

Earlier in 2017, he was part of the two-judge bench in the controversial verdict on Indian Penal Code Section 498A, pertaining to domestic violence. In the case of Rajesh Sharma & Ors versus State of UP & Anr., Justices Lalit and A.K. Goel observed that there was an increasing pattern of women misusing the legal provision to implicate husbands and their relatives.

Later in March 2018, the same bench had passed another controversial order diluting the provisions of the SC/ST Prevention of Atrocities Act, holding that the arrest of an accused was not mandatory under the Act, and ought to be done only after a preliminary inquiry and sanction by relevant authorities. The order was later withdrawn after widespread protests.

In March this year, Justice Lalit headed a bench hearing cases of death row convicts, and passed a landmark judgment with regards to death penatly convicts. The bench, hearing a series of case appeals, held that the psychological evaluation of the prisoner on death row was mandatory, and also weighed on the need for a report on the inmate’s conduct while examining whether the capital punishment remains the only resort. As of July, Lalit also headed the bench that sentenced fugitive businessman Vijay Mallya to four months’ imprisonment and a fine of Rs 2,000. Prior to this, in 2017, Lalit had also presided over the bench that convicted Mallya for contempt.

As executive chairman of the NALSA, or National Legal Services Authority, the senior judge is also said to be a passionate proponent of the legal aid movement.