Volume 3 Issue 1 - January 01, 2005

"Society is guilty if anyone suffers unjustly": Justice V.R. Krishna Iyer

Born in Malabar in November 1915, Justice V.R. Krishna Iyer was called to the Bar in 1938. His practice as a trial lawyer and appellate advocate drew him to the causes of the masses and he paid the penalty of preventive detention for a short spell in 1948. He was elected as member of the Madras Legislative Assembly and later, on the formation of the Kerala State, was re-elected to the Legislative Assembly. There he joined the state cabinet. In 1959, when the Legislature was dissolved he came back to the bar entering right at the top and eventually agreed to be a Judge of the Kerala High Court in 1968. In 1971 he was appointed to the Central Law Commission and shortly thereafter in 1973, elevated to the Supreme Court and retired from the Bench in November 1980.

He has adorned everything which he has touched. As a constructive legislator, prolific speaker and forceful crusader, dynamic minister, creative member of the Law Commission, prolific writer of articles and books -- he has been a maverick Judge, original jurisprudent and contributor of ideas.

Justice Iyer was the first to speak of Disability as a Rights issue and has also written a book titled “Law, Justice and the Disabled” published by Deep & Deep Publications, New Delhi. He speaks to Muthamma Devaya about the past and the future.

Picture of Justice V.R. Krishna Iyer

As we approach the New Year, the disability sector is looking forward with hope and anticipation, especially as 2005 marks a decade since the Disability Act was passed. Were there any laws on disability in the pre-independence era when you began your career?

There was no specific enactment regarding disabled people but the general law did provide for compensation and for other remedies for victims.

How would you compare it to the present day?

Today our law is still inadequate and the remedy is through long-winded litigation, not a quick quasi-judicial tribunal or administrative infrastructure.

In the 1980s there was an international conference in Manila where I had been invited and participated. There was another in Kuwait where also I was a member. Then I wrote a book on the subject in 1983, which happens to be the only book on the subject.

The first task of social justice is to make comprehensive legislation regarding disabled persons from womb to tomb.

Would you say that the Indian judicial system is disabled-friendly?

The judicial system can only do what the law empowers it to do. Parliament must first make adequate amendments to the law for the judiciary to be effective.

What reforms would you suggest?

I would provide for a comprehensive administrative set up. The judiciary should be given training in disability and remedial jurisprudence. The state must empower every person including a pregnant woman and a child in the womb to have corrective treatment so that deformities may be avoided and child nutrition taken care of. On the whole, the constitutional foundation is equalitarian in fact and in law, for every person to the extent science and technology can help and state resources set right.

At the valedictory session of the recently held workshop on “Disability and the Law”, you had suggested that an Ombudsman be appointed to redress the grievances of person with disability. Would you elaborate on the issue?

Yes, an Ombudsman must be appointed. The Ombudsman must have the power to give compensation. It must have power to supply limbs (orthotic and prosthetic aids) at the state’s expense; and also the power to command hospitals to provide treatment and ensure free medical treatment for persons with disability. It must make Article 14 of the Constitution a reality in a comprehensive sense. In the sense that wherever there is any disability there is inequality and for equal treatment before the law, remedies must be provided to correct the maladies. This will take many forms including hearing, speech, eyesight and other deficiencies. The power to ensure that the state provides facilities for leisure and sports to persons with disability must also be within the jurisdiction of the Ombudsman.

Any message for the New Year that you would like to share with persons with disability?

Article 14 of our constitution states that “The State shall not deny to any person equality before the law or the equal protection of the laws within the territory of India”. This must be understood in the visionary sense as that is the foundation laid down in our Constitution and therefore it must be imaginatively understood and applied.

A brief profile of Justice Krishna Iyer

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 Government of 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.

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".

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