Know Thy Judge| Justice Fathima Beevi broke the glass ceiling to become the first female Supreme Court judge this day, 31 years ago

“If I can, so can you.”[1]

Justice Fathima Beevi


Early life

Justice M. Fathima Beevi was born on 30-4-1927 in Pathanamthitta (Kerala) to Mr. Meera Sahib and Khadeeja Beevi. She did her schooling from Catholicate High School, Pathanamthitta, B.Sc. from University College, Trivandrum followed by Bachelor of Law from Law College, Trivandrum. Interestingly, she was only one of the five female students pursuing legal education in her class.

Legal career

  • Enrolled as an Advocate with the Bar Council of Kerala on 14-11-1950.
  • Appointed as Munsiff in the Kerala Sub-ordinate Judicial Services in 1958 and promoted as a Subordinate Judge in 1968.
  • Promoted to the position of District and Sessions Judge in 1974.
  • Elevated to the High Court as a Judge on 4-8-1983 and became permanent Judge of the High Court on 14-3-1984.
  • Retired as the judge of High Court on 29-04-1989.
  • On 6-10-1989, Justice Fathima Beevi was appointed as a Supreme Court judge. For India, it was a watershed moment that paved the way for women to occupy higher positions in judicial system.
  • Post retirement, in 1992 she was appointed as a member of National Human Rights Commission.

Significant Judgments

  • In a case concerning limitations on statutory power, principles of Natural Justice and applicability of Rule of Law, Scheduled Caste & Weaker Section Welfare Assn. v. State of Karnataka, (1991) 2 SCC 604, Justice Beevi said,

 “It is one of the fundamental rules of our constitutional set-up that every citizen is protected against exercise of arbitrary authority by the State or its officers. If there is power to decide and determine to the prejudice of a person, duty to act judicially is implicit in the exercise of such power and the rule of natural justice operates in areas not covered by any law validly made.”

  • In an appeal to decide the Constitutionality of a State enactment, Assam Sillimanite Ltd. v. Union of India, 1992 Supp (1) SCC 692, it was observed,

 “Notwithstanding the declaration of the legislature that any particular Act has been made to implement the directives specified in Article 39, it would be open to the Court to ignore such declaration and to examine the constitutionality of the same. The declaration cannot be relied on as a cloak to protect the law bearing no relationship with the objectives mentioned in Article 39.”

  • In a Civil suit, Ramesh Hirachand Kundanmal v. Municipal Corporation of Greater Bombay, (1992) 2 SCC 524, making notable observation upon who is a ‘necessary party’ under O.I R.10(2) CPC, Justice Beevi said,

“What makes a person a necessary party is not merely that he has relevant evidence to give on some of the questions involved; that would only make him a necessary witness. It is not merely that he has an interest in the correct solution of some question involved and has thought of relevant arguments to advance. The only reason which makes it necessary to make a person a party to an action is so that he should be bound by the result of the action and the question to be settled, therefore, must be a question in the action which cannot be effectually and completely settled unless he is a party.”

  • In a batch of Criminal Appeal, Mool chand v. Jagdish Singh, 1993 Supp (2) SCC 714, determining the scope of Article 136 of the Constitution, it was observed,

“If the evidence is of such a nature that two views are possible and the view in favour of the accused weighed with the High Court in acquitting them, this Court will be slow to interfere with the order of acquittal. If only the High Court has committed grave error in the appreciation of the evidence and misdirected itself by ignoring legal principles or misreading the evidence and arrived at the conclusion, the decision can be characterized as perverse or illegal requiring the interference by this Court under Article 136 of the Constitution of India. The judgment of the High Court if supported by cogent reasons has to be sustained.”

  • In a Civil suit, Rattan Chand Hira Chand v. Askar Nawaz, (1991) 3 SCC 67, the Court had the occasion to decide upon validity of a contract in purview of section 23 of the Indian Contract Act, 1872. Justice Beevi, in the light of given facts and circumstances, held,

“Every agreement of which the object or consideration is unlawful is void. The consideration or object of an agreement is unlawful when the court regards it as opposed to public policy. If anything is done against the public law or public policy that would be illegal inasmuch as the interest of the public would suffer in case a contract against public policy is permitted to stand. Public policy is a principle of judicial interpretation founded on the current needs of the community. The law relating to public policy cannot remain immutable. It must change with passage of time.”


Political career

  • Justice Fathima Beevi went on to become the Governor of Tamil Nadu on 25-01-1997. Appointing her and former chief justice of Jammu and Kashmir High Court as the governor of Kerala, the then President of India, Shankar Dayal Sharmasaid “Their experience of and insights into the working of the Constitution and the laws comprise valuable assets.”[2]
  • As the Governor of the State, she rejected the mercy petitions filed by four condemned prisoners in the Rajiv Gandhi assassination case.[3]
  • In a series of fateful events, Fathima Beevi submitted her resignation after the Union Cabinet decided to recommend to the President to recall the Governor for having failed to discharge the prescribed constitutional obligations.

Accolades

  • D Litt and Mahila Shiromani Award in 1990.[4]
  • S.- India Business Council (USIBC) Lifetime Achievement Award.[5]
  • Bharat JyotiAward for her exceptional achievements throughout.[6]

Some interesting facts

  • First female to hold the position of Judge at the Supreme Court of India.
  • First female Supreme Court judge to be appointed as a Governor.[7]

The place created by Justice Fathima Beevi survives with pride by several other female stalwarts in Judiciary, however not in a desirable proportion. The lower judiciary in India has a mere 27.6 per cent of women representation to the current strength of 15,806 judges whereas in high courts, the ratio suggests 10 per cent representation to the total strength of 692 judges.[8] Celebrating the breakthrough of women into Indian Judiciary, we applaud, encourage and celebrate all female members at the Bench and the Bar.


Editorial Assistant, EBC Publishing Pvt. Ltd. 

[1] Justice Fathima Beevi, 15.01.2018, DD News (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VYpMQJy8x0o)

[2] ‘We should show the world we are capable of tackling any crisis’, President Address. (https://www.rediff.com/news/jun/03sharma.htm)

[3] ‘Governor rejects Rajiv assassins’ mercy plea’ (https://www.rediff.com/news/1999/oct/28mercy.htm)

[4] Elizabeth Sleeman, ‘The International Who’s who 2004’, Europa Publications, 2003.

[5] ‘USIBC confers lifetime achievement award upon Justice Fathima Beevi’, BUSINESS STANDARD, 20-11-2015. (https://www.business-standard.com/article/news-ani/usibc-confers-lifetime-achievement-award-upon-justice-fathima-beevi-115112001212_1.html)

[6]https://web.archive.org/web/20090515101248/http://dlis.du.ac.in/Faculty%20Members/Shailendra%20Kumar.htm

[7] Women Governors in India (https://web.archive.org/web/20080305133437/http://www.indianofficer.com/forums/india-world/748-women-governors-india.html)

[8] Kanu Sarda, ‘Skewed gender ration in judiciary present world over, not just India’, THE NEW INDIAN EXPRESS, 23-02-2020. (https://www.newindianexpress.com/thesundaystandard/2020/feb/23/skewed-gender-ration-in-judiciary-present-world-over-not-just-india-2107117.html)

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