July 15, 2024

Mrs. (Justice) Sujata Vasant Manohar (Retd.)

Our People on the Hills

Our country celebrated 75th year of Independence on 15th August with the theme “Azaadi Ka Amrit Mahotsav”. All citizens proudly hoisted our ‘Tiranga’ outside their homes and balconies in response to the ‘Har Ghar Tiranga’ campaign of the Government.

After this joyous occasion, we feel honoured to write about Retired Justice Sujata Manohar, a resident of our Hills. In 1978, she was the first woman Judge to be appointed in the Bombay High Court. She was also the first woman Chief Justice of the Bombay and Kerala High Courts in 1994 and was elevated to the Supreme Court in November 1994. She has numerous awards, honours, and recognitions; in Mumbai she will always be remembered as the first woman Judge and Chief Justice of the Bombay High Court.

Mrs. Sujata Manohar was born in 1934, into a distinguished legal family; her father, Late Mr. K.T. Desai, was the Chief Justice of Gujarat High Court. She has an excellent academic record. She finished first among girls, in the Bombay State Level Secondary School Certificate Examination in 1950 with three scholarships and prizes. Elphinstone College, Bombay, awarded her a first-class Honours degree in Philosophy and Sanskrit in 1954. She received six scholarships and prizes from Bombay University, then a university record. She went abroad for further studies and obtained her M.A. from Oxford University in Philosophy, Politics and Economics and then became Barrister-at-Law from Lincoln’s Inn, London.

She enrolled as a Barrister in the Bombay High Court and started her legal practice in 1958. During those days the legal profession was dominated by men. She recalls a senior advocate asking her “What are you doing here?” on her first day in court. “Education gives you the knowledge; eventually you have to gain practical experience if you have to succeed and be good at it. I started taking up cases, read the applicable laws, studied previous judgments, drafted pleadings, appeared in court, and did my best to get justice for my clients, and then slowly over a period of time I started getting work and respect though I was a woman. I must say that Bombay has a more acceptable attitude towards working and professional women. Now things have improved a lot.”

She took on numerous cases and made her presence and efforts known in the courts. Her arguments were known for being exact, precise, and focused. As an advocate, she accepted many pro bono cases, many of which involved women’s issues. She did this at a time when the government did not provide women with free legal assistance. Very humbly she says “Those women wanted justice but didn’t have the resources or expertise to get it and I just helped them”. She was invited to give lectures and talks in numerous governmental and social organizations for welfare of women. She was consulted when the Government was framing a free legal aid scheme by Committee of Justice Krishna Iyer and Justice P.N. Bhagwati.

Based on her dedication, knowledge, experience, and conduct, she was appointed as a Judge of the Bombay High Court in 1978 and then as Chief Justice of the Bombay High Court in 1994, making her the first woman to hold both positions. She was elevated as Judge of the Supreme Court of India in 1994 and retired from there in 1999.

Justice Sujata Manohar was given many responsibilities because of her abilities. She was In-charge of the setting up of Family Courts in Maharashtra. She was Vice Chairman of the Maharashtra State Legal Aid and Advisory Board and first chair of the Board of Advisors, Judicial Officers Training Institute.

After her retirement, she was appointed as a member, National Human Rights Commission. She was invited by the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights to be on the advisory board of judges on enforcement of human rights. She is an Honorary Fellow of Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, and an Honorary Bencher of Lincoln’s Inn, London, the first Indian judge to be so honoured. She is also a patron of the Oxford University Commonwealth Law Journal and Honorary Fellow, Asiatic Society of Mumbai.

Justice Manohar, because of her interest in academics, was involved with educational institutions both before and after her retirement. She is former Chairman of the Managing Council of Bombay’s Chanda Ramji Girls High School, former Chairman of the Board of Governors of Welham Girls School in Dehradun, and former trustee of the Bombay International School in Mumbai. She has keen interest in Indian Classical Music and was also the Chair, Board of Trustees of the Asiatic Society of Bombay.

On the personal front, she maintained a good balance between her profession and her family. She attributes her success to the love and support she received from her family, particularly her husband and children. Academics were a common interest among the family members. Her husband Vasant Manohar, Electrical Engineer was the head of Tata Consulting Engineers had stood first in the University from VJTI. Her son, Aneesh Manohar, had stood first in India in his IIT Entrance Exams.

Her list of accomplishments, awards, recognitions, and honours is so long that space is limited. She will always be remembered, as the first woman Judge and Chief Justice of the Bombay High Court. She is the pride of our neighbourhood. We wish her a long and healthy life!


Editorial Committee of ‘The Voice of Malabar Hills”.