Never faced sexism as lawyer or judge; litigants do not need to fold their hands before courts: Justice Mukta Gupta

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Never faced sexism as lawyer or judge; litigants do not need to fold their hands before courts: Justice Mukta Gupta

Justice Mukta Gupta

Justice Mukta Gupta was a constant presence in the Delhi High Court for nearly four decades. At the Bar, she was a fierce prosecutor who argued many sensitive cases and at the Bench, a strict judge who spoke her mind. 

During her days as a lawyer, Justice Gupta appeared in the Parliament and Red Fort shootout cases, the Naval war room leak case and the Jessica Lal murder case. After her elevation to the Bench, she penned judgments on civil, criminal and intellectual property matters. Even on her last day as a judge, she made headlines for having pronounced judgments in 65 cases.

Justice Gupta was also instrumental in rescuing hundreds of young girls from Delhi’s GB Road who were forced into prostitution.

In this interview with Bar & Bench’s Prashant Jha, the judge looks back on her career, shares her thoughts on female representation in the judiciary and reveals how she played a part in the rehabilitation of around 350 girls.

Justice Mukta Gupta

Prashant Jha (PJ): You were in the profession for four decades. How was the journey?

Justice Mukta Gupta: Both as a lawyer and as a judge, it has been a very satisfying career for me. I feel whatever I could have done, I have done. So, there is no looking back and there are no regrets. I tried to dispose of as many matters as I could, to the best of my ability.

PJ: Can you tell us about your initial years as a lawyer?

Justice Gupta: I started my practice with my father, who was the then Standing Counsel (Income Tax) and Standing Counsel for the Central government. After this, I switched to civil practice and then I became an Additional Public Prosecutor (APP) in January 1993. This is how my criminal practise started.

Justice Sunanda Bhandare was my mentor and she would say, ‘Even if you go to take an adjournment, you should be ready with the brief.’ I think this really helped me. Even if you are asking for an adjournment, if the Court gets a flavour of the matter, then even that adjournment is meaningful, because the Court gets to know whether or not there is urgency in the matter and how much time the arguments will take.  So, board management for the Court becomes easier.

PJ: There were very few women in the profession back then. Did that make things difficult?

Justice Gupta: When I joined the practise, there were very few women lawyers and most of them were juniors working with senior lawyers. At that time, to establish an independent practice was a great achievement for any woman lawyer. So, transgressing and being able to establish my own independent practise was, I think, a milestone for me.

PJ: Many say that at that time, there was a sense that women lawyers are only used to seek adjournments. Is there any truth to this? 

Justice Gupta: See, when you are working with a senior, most of the time arguments are addressed by the senior. We need to go back to that time when there were no electronic boards. Juniors had to run to each court and find out which matter was going on and tell the senior. If the senior was not able to reach then, the junior would take a passover or an adjournment. This was the position of almost all junior counsel, whether they were men or women.

PJ: You were a topper in the judicial services exams. Yet, you chose to continue practicing. Why?

Justice Mukta Gupta.

Justice Gupta: I never wanted to be a judge. I thought practice was quite challenging and interesting. But as you grow, you feel if you have done a lot of work as a lawyer, it is time to serve the institution in a different way as well.  Therefore, when my consent was sought by the then Chief Justice of the Delhi High Court and the other Collegium members, I willingly agreed to the same.  

Young people who join the judiciary must come with the attitude that it is a service to the society and to everyone who comes before them.

PJ: In 2009, you were appointed a judge. How was this transition?

Justice Gupta: Before elevation, since I was the Standing Counsel (Criminal), GNCTD, it required me to take a balanced approach in matters. So, the transition to the role of a judge was easy for me.

PJ:   In your farewell speech, you said that by delivering justice, judges are not doing any charity. Do judges really believe that they are doing charity by granting relief?

Justice Mukta Gupta

Justice Gupta: Often, when litigants or counsel come, they feel that they are at the mercy of the court. That feeling, I feel, should not be there. It is not right to have that feeling. If a case is made out, then it is the right of the litigant to get that relief. I have seen in court that some lawyers start folding their hands. This is not required. You state your case. If the relief is made out, then it is the litigant’s right to get the relief.

PJ: So, your comments had nothing to do with the mindset of some of the judges?

Justice Gupta: In my opinion, it is good if everyone, including the litigants, lawyers and judges, have that clarity in mind that if a litigant has a right, then that right must be recognised. The courts are there to recognise the rights of the litigant. Recognition of this right is one of the fundamental principles.

PJ: At your farewell, you said that when you became APP, one of your colleagues commented that you had never done criminal matters.

Justice Mukta Gupta.

Justice Gupta: Before I became Additional Public Prosecutor, I had never done criminal matters. Within two months, I was doing murder references and thereafter conducted some of the most contentious criminal matters in the country.

What happens in our system, or any system, is that people are stereotyped to one kind of work. Whereas, I think, everyone can do every kind of matter and that I feel is the best part of our profession. You study the law; you work and you find solutions to the problems.

PJ: You said that there were similar doubts when you first sat on the Original Side and dealt with Intellectual Property cases. There was a sense that some of these doubts arose because you were a woman. Is it true?

Justice Mukta Gupta.

Justice Gupta: I had a long tenure as a Standing Counsel (Criminal) GNCTD. Many lawyers who joined late had not seen me working as a civil lawyer, so they thought that I only knew criminal law. They did not know that I had done tax and civil work also.

There are so many examples where lawyers who had worked on the civil side and when they sat on the criminal side as judges, did fantastically well.

Every lawyer and every judge can adapt. That is the beauty of this profession. Despite the fact that I had not done any IPR matter as a lawyer, as a judge, I authored a number of judgments on IPR, which led to me being the first woman judge of this country to be recognised as one of the 50 most Influential Persons on IP Law in the world in the year 2020.

I think once you are appointed a judge, there is no discrimination between a male judge or a female judge. It was not because of being a woman, but because most lawyers perceived that since I practised on the criminal side, I may not be well-versed with civil law/intellectual property law.

PJ: As of today, the Delhi High Court has around 45 judges. Only 9 of them are women and there is no female judge in the top-ten senior most judges. What, according to you, is the reason for this?

Justice Gupta: There are two sources for appointment as a High Court judge. One is from the Bar and the other is the district judiciary/judicial services. So, you must go back to the time when I joined the profession to see the average number of women judges who are on the Bench today. Since in the Bar at that time, the number of women lawyers was very low, the number of women judges was also less. As the number of women practitioners is increasing, so is the number of women on the Bench. It is always commensurate with the number of practising women lawyers.

There was a time in the judicial services when we only had 20-30% women clearing the exams. But the situation now is that almost 50-60% of those who qualify are women. When they come to the level of elevation to High Court, probably the ratio in the High Court will also be 50-50%.

PJ: Do you think sexism is prevalent in the legal profession?

Justice Mukta Gupta.

Justice Gupta: Personally, as a lawyer and as a judge, I have never experienced it. I always thought that I was a lawyer and a judge. I never thought that I got any favouritism because I am a woman or that anyone discriminated because I am a woman.

PJ: You have been a prosecutor in several high-profile cases like the Naval war room leak case and the Jessica Lal murder case. Can you tell us about your approach to these matters? 

Justice Mukta Gupta.

Justice Gupta: Very frankly, I never thought one case is different from the other. I would never read newspapers. I never took a special or different approach to a case just because some high-profile people were involved in it. Every case brings its own challenges. So, you look at it from that angle. You look at the law and the facts and try to build your arguments. If there were 100 matters for me to argue, all of them would get the same attention.

PJ:   You joined the profession in 1984. In these four decades, court reporting has undergone a sea change. Has media coverage of a matter ever affected you as a judge?

Justice Gupta: Personally, to me, never. In my initial days as a lawyer itself, I trained myself not to be affected by media coverage. However, judges are also human beings. As in any other profession, every human being is different. Most of the judges are not influenced by what the media says. For the media, something which may be very important to highlight may not be important for the judge.

When you are doing 100 matters or 70 matters a day, you are applying your mind equally to each of these matters. Often it happens that the media coverage of a case one deals with leaves one wondering which case was it that has become so sensational. 

PJ:  Last year, the Supreme Court upheld the validity of the Prevention of Money Laundering Act, in a judgment that has been criticised by many in the legal fraternity. Another bench of the Supreme Court has expressed doubts regarding the correctness of the judgment. What are your thoughts?

Justice Gupta: We are all bound by the decision of the Supreme Court on the issue.  However, one thing I would like to state is that an offence of money laundering is an offence related to the proceeds of a scheduled offence. Even while dealing with a scheduled offence, the fact that financial gain was a motive or incident is required to be investigated as an ingredient of the scheduled offence.

Therefore, the offence of money laundering, being an ingredient of the scheduled offence, the Supreme Court in Vijay Madanlal rightly held that if the accused gets discharged or acquitted of the predicate offence or the complaint, the FIR thereon is quashed, and the proceedings under PMLA also needs to be quashed.

PJ:   You were instrumental in rescuing around 350 minor girls from Delhi’s GB Road who were forced into prostitution. Please tell us how this was achieved.

Justice Gupta: I was a Standing Counsel (Criminal) GNCTD back then. This was a petition which was pending in the Court from 1992. In 2002, the Court said that the petition was pending for 10 years and nothing concrete had happened and if we could settle even a few of the girls, we could say that the outcome of the petition was positive. So, this is how it started.

We had discussions with all the stakeholders and each one was ready to cooperate in the task. Most of these girls were minors and this [prostitution] was a very serious offence. Rescuing them was still an easier task, the main difficulty was rehabilitation of the girls. If there was no rehabilitation, mere rescue would have been futile. Unless the girls were empowered, they would be trafficked again. So, sending them home or repatriating them without making them self-reliant would have been a meaningless exercise.

Each girl came from a different background and had different interests. We interviewed each of them, gave them training and ensured that work is available for them. Then we also ensured that there was constant monitoring. 

Funds were also an issue. We found that all the district magistrates (DM) had funds in the poverty alleviation scheme. We associated the DMs of the districts from where these girls came. Most of these girls were from 15-20 districts. These officers devised mechanisms for rehabilitation by giving the girls money from their funds. The DMs were asked to act as guardians of these girls and were asked to send monthly reports back to the High Court.

PJ: I think around 20 girls got married because of your personal efforts as well?

Justice Gupta: It all started when one of the girls said that there is a boy who is regularly visiting her and is interested in marriage. We found that the boy had a settled family and the family members were also willing for the marriage. The marriage was performed at Nirmal Chhaya.

Once one girl got married, that was an encouragement for others also. But even after their marriage, we kept monitoring their rehabilitation.

PJ: You have retired after being on the Bench for 14 years. Many of the judges from the High Court and the Supreme Court have taken up post-retirement jobs. What is your view on this?

Justice Gupta: Personally, I do not wish to take up any assignment. It is always a personal choice. 

PJ: What is your post-retirement plan?

Justice Gupta: I will be doing some work including academics, practice and arbitration to start with, and then will see how it progresses.

PJ: Finally, any advice for the younger members of the Bar?

Justice Gupta: The only mantra to success in this profession is hard work. Do the work properly with commitment to your brief, your client and to the court. Be fair and everything just falls in line.

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