Lily Thomas (1927 – 10 December 2019) was an Indian lawyer who initiated improvement and change to existing laws by filing petitions in India‘s highest court and regional courts. Thomas’ petitions resulted in changes to laws to prevent convicted politicians getting elected, the addition of a new marriage law and protections for parliamentarians. Thomas was hailed most notably for petitioning to amend the Representation of the People Act.
Lily hailed from Kottayam and grew up in Trivandrum. She had joined Madras High Court in 1955, under which she studied the LLM course which was completed in 1959. Thomas belongs to the first generation of women lawyers in India and she was the first woman to complete the LLM course from Madras University.
After obtaining a law degree from Madras University, she started her practice in the Madras High Court. She was the first lady in India to qualify for an LLM degree. In 1960, she moved to Delhi to do a Ph.D but discovered that she was not really cut out for academia. “I realised that I was not competent to do research,” she admitted, “so I started practising in the Supreme Court”.
Thomas had joined the Supreme Court in 1960. She dropped out of doctorate in law after coming to Delhi and started working where her brother John Thomas was already practising. Lily filed petitions since 1964 on different issues such as the validity of ‘Advocate-on-Record Examination’,] sorting out issues of railway employees and case on conversion to Islam for the express purpose of entering into a second marriage in 2000. Thomas worked on constitutional law, women’s rights and issues of personal liberty. Lily was an advocate in ‘OLD LAWYERS CHAMBERS BLOCKS’.
In 2013, at the age of 85, she won a landmark judgement under which members of India’s Parliament and members of state legislative bodies, convicted of a crime or in jail, became ineligible to run for elections or hold an elected seat. Prior to this judgment, members of Parliament who were convicted but had filed an appeal could go about their regular business, including being elected and holding seats.
Lily Thomas, along with advocate Satya Narain Shukla had filed a Writ petition in the apex court in 2005, challenging a provision of the Representation of the People Act which protects convicted lawmakers against disqualification on the grounds of pendency of appeal against their conviction in the higher courts. On 10 July 2013, a bench of justices A K Patnaik and S J Mukhopadhaya held that, “The only question is about the vires of section 8(4) of the Representation of the People Act (RPA), 1951 and we hold that it is ultra vires and that the disqualification takes place from the date of conviction.”
Validity of “Advocate on Record” system
Lily was one of the first lawyers to file a petition in the Supreme Court challenging the validity of the ‘Advocate on Record’ system on 14 January 1964. Under this system, only those advocates who have passed the AOR exam are eligible to file petitions. Lily believed that ‘Section 30’ under Part IV of the Advocates Act mentions that all advocates have the right to practise in all courts including the Supreme Court in India and no restriction should be imposed for passing an exam and ‘Section 16’ differentiates lawyers into Advocates and Senior Advocates. The issue of AOR was challenged and debated multiple times, on 16 October 2015 the Supreme Court struck down NJAC meant to replace the AOR, as unconstitutional and upheld the collegium system.
Petition on Stopping Conversion for Bigamy
Lily had filed the petition in the Supreme Court on status of the earlier marriage regarding a case when a non-Muslim gets converted to the ‘Muslim’ faith without any real change or belief without divorcing first wife. The Court after hearing similar petitions declared the practice of remarrying as null and void unless the first marriage is dissolved. The Law Commission send the recommendation to the Law Ministry amending Hindu Marriage Act, 1955 to stop the illegal practice.
Striking down Representation of the People Act
Lily along with Lucknow-based NGO Lok Prahari were the petitioners in the case when the Supreme Court had struck down Section 8(4) of the Representation of the People Act, 1951 to disqualify a legislator immediately when convicted for two or more years’ prison. When the UPA government had prepared an ordinance to nullify the judgment, Thomas made a review petition against the ordinance, the government had later withdrawn the ordinance route after severe criticism. She had got help from other experts, including Fali Nariman in the case. Lily’s petition was accepted the third time after successive rejections. The law had far reaching effect when influential politicians such as then Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa, Rasheed Masood and Lalu Prasad were disqualified. The judgement is largely seen to cleanse politics from criminalization.
Other notable cases
- Lily Thomas vs State Of Tamil Nadu.
- Lily Thomas (Ms), Advocate vs Speaker, Lok Sabha And Ors.
- Lily Thomas vs State Of Maharashtra And Ors.
- Lily Thomas vs Union Of India (Uoi).
Lily believed it is the responsibility of the lawyers to fight through petitions to improve the existing laws and having criminals as politicians is an insult to the parliamentary system. Thomas considered her father a hero. At an old age she went to the court every day and worked for 8–10 hours. Lily preferred reading Mills and Boon and having knowledge of Bible and Vishnu Sahasranam. She was a practising Syrian Christian.