All modern day representations of justice in the courts around the world are of the Lady Justice carrying a sword and pair of scales, who is often blindfolded to symbolize the fair and equal administration of the law. It is also interesting to note that the building of the Supreme Court of India was designed to project the image of scales of justice within its central wing. It appears that the scales of justice embodying the architecture of the highest court of justice in India are none other than those held by the Lady Justice. Hence, one can assume that the presence of women judges in Indian Courts runs far and deep.
But the reality is far different. Since our independence, only six women have been appointed as judges in the Supreme Court. The first appointment was of Justice M Fathima Beevi, which happened 39 years after the establishment of the Supreme Court in 1950. Currently, out of the 28 judges sitting in the Supreme Court, there is only one woman judge, Justice R. Banumathi. India has had a women president and a prime minister but never a woman chief justice.
The same trend follows in our High Courts, where only 10% of the total appointed judges are women. The reason behind this widespread absence of women judges in our courts lies in the Collegium system, where judges appoint judges.
The Collegium system is one where the Chief Justice of India and a forum of four senior-most judges of the Supreme Court recommend appointments and transfers of judges. We are the only country in the world where judges appoint judges without any interference of the legislature or executive. It is a highly discreet system, where the knowledge about the composition of this panel is not made public and neither are the criteria that determine the promotion of a judge from the High Court to the Supreme Court
Despite the skewed gender representation in our Indian courts, our women judges have still manged to make a mark. The landmark judgement, Vishaka v State of Rajasthan (1997) was delivered by Justice Sujata Manohar, where for the first time in the history of India, the issue of sexual harassment at workplace became a concern for legal action. Similarly, Justice Ruma Pal, also extensively elaborated on the concept of “mental cruelty” in marriage through her judgements for Jayanchandra v Aneel Kaur(2004).
Delhi Judiciary established Mahilla Courts in 1194, which are all-women courts for expediting the process of justice in cases of violence against women. Currently, 11 such courts are functional in Delhi, which are headed by women judges and are also predominantly staffed by women staff. Despite women playing such a pivotal role in our Judiciary, it is a shame that our courts haven’t been able to recognize their contribution. It is necessary that we work towards enhancing the representation of women at all levels of the judiciary.