Through the Looking Glass Ceiling: Woman Judges (or the lack thereof) in the Higher Judiciary

Woman Judges

In 1959, Anna Chandy created history by becoming the first woman to be appointed as a high court judge in India. It was touted as a watershed moment that could potentially pave the way for women in India to occupy positions in the higher judiciary.

But the reality has been quite different.

It would take thirty more years for another woman from Kerala, Justice Fathima Beevi, to become the first woman judge to hold a post as a Supreme Court judge. Since 1989, only five other women have been appointed as judges of the apex court.

And as this article will later show, the number of women judges in high courts over past few decades has also been few and far between.

A multitude of reasons exist for the higher judiciary being male-dominated. The women who have been there – be it Justice Leila Seth (the first Chief Justice of a high court) or Justice Ruma Pal – have recounted how they overcame harrowing experiences and made it to the top, against all odds.

So have things become better over the past few years? Only slightly so.

While the representation of women in high courts has increased, the Supreme Court has been functioning with just one woman judge – Justice R Banumathi – for the last three years.

This article aims to quantitatively ascertain just how dire the lack of representation of women in the higher judiciary has been in the past, and to highlight the present scenario as well.

Women in the Higher Judiciary: A Brief History

As mentioned above, in the history of the Supreme Court, there have been a mere six woman judges. Taking Justice Beevi’s lead was Justice Sujatha Manohar, followed by Justices Ruma Pal, and more recently Justices Gyan Sudha Misra and Ranjana Prakash Desai, and Justice Banumathi, the lone woman judge in the apex court today.

Coming to the high courts, women have occupied the post of a high court judge only 86 times* since Anna Chandy’s elevation to the Kerala High Court in 1959. This number excludes former judges of the Calcutta and Madras High Courts, and includes judges who have occupied posts in more than one high court.

High Court No. of former woman judges  First woman judge
Allahabad  6 Shobha Dikshit (1991)
AP & Telangana  4 K Amareswari (1978) 
Bombay  7 Sujata Manohar (1978)
Delhi 12   Leila Seth (1978)
Gauhati  3 Meera Sarma
Gujarat  2 Sugnya Bhatt (1994) 
Himachal Pradesh  2 Kamlesh Sharma (1990)
Jharkhand 2 Jaya Roy (2008)
Karnataka 2 Manjula Chellur (2000)
Kerala 10 Anna Chandy (1959)
Madhya Pradesh 8 Sarojini Saxena (1994)
Meghalaya 2 Anima Hazarika (2005)
Orissa 2 Amiya Kumari Padhi (1988)
Patna 8 IP Singh (1990)
Punjab & Haryana 10 HM Kaur Sandhu (1991)
Rajasthan 6 Mohini Kapoor (1985)
Uttarakhand 1 Nirmal Yadav (2010)

*Information with respect to the High Courts of Calcutta and Madras are not available.

The Delhi High Court has had the highest number of woman judges, with 12. The High Courts of Kerala and Punjab & Haryana are not far, with 10 each. On the other hand, the High Courts of Chhattisgarh, Jammu & Kashmir, Manipur, and Tripura are yet to appoint a woman judge in their history.

Current Woman Judges

As shown below, a little over 10% of the 692 high court judge posts are currently occupied by women. The total sanctioned strength of the high court judges is 1079 and there currently exists a deficit of 387 Judges. While the High Courts of Delhi, Bombay and Karnataka maintain a fairly decent percentage of woman judges, there are the High Courts of Allahabad, Rajasthan and Orissa, which have a mere 5% of woman judges.

Worse still are the High Courts of Chhattisgarh, Jammu & Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh, Jharkhand, Manipur, Meghalaya, Tripura and Uttarakhand, which have a sum total of zero woman judges.

High Court No. of women judges % of women judges
Allahabad 6 5.5%
AP & Telangana 4 12.5%
Bombay 11 15.06%
Calcutta 4 11.4%
Delhi 10 26.3%
Gauhati 1 1.3%
Gujarat 4 12.9%
Karnataka 4 14.8%
Kerala 4 11.1%
Madhya Pradesh 3 8.5% 
Madras 7 13.2%
Orissa 1 5.5% 
Patna 2 6.06%
Punjab & Haryana 6 12% 
Rajasthan 2 5.5%
Sikkim 1 33.33% 
TOTAL 70 10.1%

The above figures show that the higher judiciary is becoming a (slightly) more inclusive place. For instance, the Bombay High Court currently has more judges than it ever had in its 156-year history.

From a short term perspective, the number of woman judges across the twenty four high courts has increased from 63 in December 2015 to 70 as of October 2017.

Corrigendum: This article wrongly mentioned Justice Nagarathna as the first woman judge from the Karnataka High Court. The error stands corrected.