Sophy follows in the footsteps of Anna Chandy, the first woman to be appointed a HC judge in India and Fathima Beevi, the first woman judge in the SC.

Sophy Thomas in black coat in office
news Inspiration Tuesday, June 02, 2020 - 16:45
Written by  Cris

Last Tuesday, the picture of a woman in a black coat, standing in a judicial office in Kerala, was printed on newspapers. Sophy Thomas, the principal district judge in Thrissur, has just been made the Registrar General of the High Court. She’s the first woman to hold the office.

Sophy laughs modestly when she's reminded that she follows in the footsteps of Anna Chandy, the first woman to have been appointed a High Court judge in India, and Fathima Beevi, the first woman to be a judge in the Supreme Court. Anna, sometimes called a 'first generation feminist' became a munsif in Travancore in 1937, before Kerala was formed. In 1948, she became a district judge and in 1959, the first woman to be made a High Court judge in the country. Fathima Beevi, born two decades after Anna, worked her way through several courts from the lower judiciary to the High Court, before being appointed as a Supreme Court judge in 1989.

That year, Sophy was working as a junior advocate in a cramped office in Idukki, with 14 other male advocates. “From 1987 to 1990, I worked there, in a corner seat, which if I had to reach without bumping against a lawyer or his desk, I would have to reach very early. Those were the days when there was no private space or a toilet for women even in the bar association. But it was an office that dealt with criminal cases and I could learn a lot, attending murder cases, taking down all the statements, as a junior advocate,” Sophy says.

She remembers cases for which the famous criminal lawyer Kunhiraman Menon would come from Kozhikode. “As juniors, our job was to write down all the statements so that the senior advocate could quickly make references and find out any contradictions before examining a witness. It was such great exposure, listening to the likes of Kunjiraman Menon sir handling the defense of a case.”

A few years before this, Sophy had not even wanted to study law. Growing up in a village called Vazhakulam in Muvattupuzha, Sophy had applied for an MSc course which she couldn’t get admission for. While she waited for her chances in other colleges, she enrolled for the LLB in Ernakulam, with the fear of someone moving from the village to the city. But when she made friends and began developing an interest for the subjects, Sophy knew this was her path.

With her three years of experience in Idukki, Sophy wrote the magistrate test and passed it securing the first rank. “In that year, the integration of civil and criminal judicial years had not yet happened. It happened in 1991 and a munsif of the civil service was equivalent to the first class magistrate of the criminal service," she says.

Coming to the aid of an abandoned baby

For the next 15 years, Sophy worked in Ernakulam, becoming a chief judicial magistrate / sub judge. Once when she was serving in Perumbavoor munsif court, a baby was abandoned outside her office. “It was a rainy day and the baby’s mother, a woman with mental illness, was apparently chased away by the police when they saw her roaming around the court. So she left the child at the court verandah and ran away. It was a seven month old boy and my son was then seven months old. I wrapped the child in a turkey towel and took care of him till a social worker came to pick him up,” Sophy says.

A newspaper published the picture of the baby in the towel, and wrote ‘munsifinte mathr valsalyam shishuvinu thunayayi’ – 'Motherly love of the munsif becomes support for baby'.

Malayalam newspaper cutting on Sophy rescuing the child

The child ended up in the Aluva SOS Children’s Village, from where he was taken for a critical surgery. He survived. Sophy learnt about him through the letters of the woman who took care of him at SOS.

After the munsif days in Ernakulam, Sophy got promoted as a district judge in Kozhikode and was appointed in the Maradu special court to deal with the Maradu massacre case of 2003. “The life sentence I had given to some of the accused was later upheld by the High Court,” she says.

New role, a big responsibility

In 2011, she joined a family court in Ettumanoor and five years later, became a principal district judge. She joined the Thrissur office in June 2018. Sophy had no clue that her name was being considered for the Registrar General -- administrative in charge of the High Court, dealing with non-judicial matters in the functioning of the court. Most Registrar Generals usually become HC judges in due course.

“I had no clue. It was on a Sunday night – when I had gone home for the weekend – that I was told to report at the chief’s office on Monday. I didn’t even have a sari and blouse, having only salwars with me then. So I got a blouse stitched by a neighbour and went,” Sophy says.

On Tuesday, she assumed office as the Registrar General. “It is a huge responsibility since it would depend on my performance, for people to see if women can be trusted with this job. But I can say in my 29 years of service, there have been no issues, no complaints.”

In her previous office in Thrissur, Sophy got all the staff in the civil and criminal services together to celebrate Christmas and Onam and Eid al-Fitr. “They had been having different celebrations within the same premises. I thought that should change. They said that it is the first time in 34 years that a district judge said something like this and brought them all together for a celebration.”

Video-conferencing before coronavirus

In 2020, even before video conferencing became a norm in courts with the COVID-19 lockdown, Sophy had a tryst with it. The coronavirus outbreak had not yet happened but two of her witnesses were in Australia and unable to come all the way to Kerala to attend court. “It was a case when a child called Meba was drowned in a river near Pudukad by a relative. The two witnesses – the child’s parents –  came to the consulate in Melbourne and we started the session early at 10, because of the time difference between the two countries.”

Creating history, the full trial was done over video conferencing for the first time. Sophy sentenced the convict to life imprisonment.

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