Born in Malabar on November 1, 1915, Justice V.R. Krishna Iyer went on to become one of the best lawyers in India. A rare individual with high principles and a dedicated, daring and humane lawyer, he excelled as a creative legislator while in the Madras Legislature. A dynamic person, he managed portfolios as divergent as Law, Justice, Home, Irrigation, Energy and Social Welfare in the first democratically-elected Communist government of the world under the late EMS Namboodiripad in Kerala.
After that political career, he was back at the bar and later, on the Bench he brought new dimensions of compassionate humanism to the legal field and provided able direction to the judicial process. He rose to the top at the Kerala Bar and was elevated to the Bench of Kerala High Court in 1968 where he began his brilliant tenure as Judge. Soon, he arrived in Delhi as a member of the Central Law Commission.
The first ever National Project for Free Legal Services to the poor was a Report on Processual Justice to the people by a high-powered committee headed by Justice Iyer. In the field of legal aid his Committee’s report was the first National Presentation of a project for free legal services in the country, way back in 1973.
The finest hour of the Supreme Court was when Justice Krishna Iyer, along with a companionate team, set about transforming Indian jurisprudence and democratised the judicial process. Public interest litigation, processual affirmative action and forensic defence of human rights and lawyers’ services at state expense, blossomed in the justice system. By interpreting Article 21 of the Indian Constitution Justice Iyer’s Bench directed the State to provide free legal services to accused persons in custody. Indeed, his profound contribution to prison jurisprudence in a few criminal cases has given shape to rehumanisation of the sentencing system in India. While a larger Bench of the Supreme Court of India had upheld the constitutionality of death sentence, Justice Iyer imposed stern conditionality making death penalty a sentencing rarity. Justice Krishna Iyer humanised the jurisprudence of bail was and this has been a lasting contribution to the liberation of undertrial prisoners.
He was judge in case of Indira Gandhi v. Raj Narayan. It was his judgment that declined judicial solace to Indira Gandhi after Allahabad High Court had convicted her for election malpractice that led to the imposition of emergency in 1975.
There is no Indian judge till date, living or dead, on whom two or three doctoral theses have been written by scholars in different universities. Justice Krishna Iyer has that distinction. He retired from the Supreme Court in November 1980.
Of him, leading lawyer F. S. Nariman is reported to have once said: “When Krishna Iyer speaks, the nation listens”. On another occasion, the same doyen of the Indian Bar, observed: “Some judges are compared to tall oak trees — but it is only the tallest oaks, like a Denning in the U.K., or a Krishna Iyer in India — who can indulge even with some success in that delicate and unpredictable exercise: of laying down the law in accordance with justice”.