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Dress and Address in Courts

OCTOBER 04, 2023

By Vijay Kumar

"YOU think this is a cinema hall?", a High Court Judge asked an IAS officer who appeared before him. "Don't you know what dress code you have to wear in the court? Did you not go for IAS training in Mussoorie? What is wrong with the IAS officers in the state? They don't know how to appear in court?" the judge asked.

"This is the normal dress code in which IAS officers appear in court, your lordship," the officer responded, adding that there is no official instruction directing officers to be dressed in a blazer or coat while appearing in court.

The Judge, however,said that all officers are required to wear a coat and have the collar buttoned while appearing in court. He added that there is no exception to the rule even during summer.

The Government recently submitted to the Supreme Court a draft STANDARD OPERATING PROCEDURE (SOP) regarding Appearance of Government Officials in Court Proceedings, in which the above incident was mentioned as:

Instance of hearing before Patna HC wherein officer in question was Principal Secretary for Housing an dUrban Development in the state. He was dressed in a formal white shirt and trousers for the hearing but was reprimanded for appearing in court in "inappropriate attire". The judge further asked if he had attended the civil service training institute in Mussoorie and if they had not told him "how to appear in court".

And the Government suggested:

Comments on the dress/physical appearance/educational and social background of the government official appearing before the Court should be refrained. Government officials are not officers of the court and there should be no objection to their appearing in a decent work dress unless such appearance is unprofessional orunbecoming of her/his position.

But I am not on dress, I am on address. How do you address judges, especially the lady judges?

Chapter IIIA of the Bar Council of India Rules, stipulates:

Consistent with the obligation of the Bar to show a respectful attitude towards the Court and bearing in mind the dignity of Judicial Office, the form of address to be adopted whether in the Supreme Court, High Courts or Subordinate Courts should be as follows:

"Your Honour" or "Hon'ble Court" in Supreme Court & High Courts and in the Subordinate Courts and Tribunals it is open to the Lawyers to address the Court as "Sir" or the equivalent word in respective regional languages.

EXPLANATION: As the words "My Lord" and "Your Lordship" are relics of Colonial post, it is proposed to incorporate the above rule showing respectful attitude to the Court.

Though we are not required to address the judges as "my lords", "your lordship" etc, lawyers still do and for many lawyers, the phrase "my lord" is a filler. When they don't know what to say, they say "my lord". The Chief Justice of a High Court once asked a lawyer, "Are you trying to get into the Guinness Book of World Records, for the number of times the words ‘my lord' is used in a minute - I have already counted twenty."

In the CESTAT, traditionally the Members are addressed as "my lord", "your lordship" and ‘lordship', at least by the lawyers. This comes naturally to the lawyers, but others find it a little odd and so they fumble before the lords. Many lawyers call even Commissioners ‘my lords' when they appear in departmental adjudication and not many Commissioners object to this, but if the Commissioner appears before the CESTAT, he squirms to call his former colleague, the Technical Member ‘my lord'.Of course, there are some very senior retired officers practising as advocates who would unhesitatingly address the Member (who would be twenty years his junior in the department) as ‘my lord'.

But how do you address a lady judge? This problem shouldn't have arisen now as the Tribunal had lady members right from its inception. How I regret my lapse in not asking this question to Ms. Rama Devi, one of the earliest Members of the CESTAT, when I interviewed her twenty years ago.

In a CESTAT Bench presided over by a lady judge, a DR was addressing the Bench as Madam. The Hon'ble Member objected as it was a Bench of two judges and by no stretch of imagination can the other Member or the Bench be called Madam. Though he immediately addressed as ‘the hon'ble bench', he switched over to madam again - habits die hard. Another DR had a doubt. He stood up and asked, "what is the solution?". The Lady Member did not directly reply, but said there are many other ways of addressing the Bench.

I asked a senior advocate, whether we should call the lady judge as "my lady". He replied that it is not proper, at least in India. "But the feminine version of ‘my lord' in English is my lady", I told him. "Winning the case is more important than stupid English", he told me.

The first lady Chief Justice in India and perhaps the second lady judge of a High Court , Ms Leila Seth faced a similar situation. She writes in her autobiography,

In court the lawyers addressed me as My Lord, just as my brother judges. I was asked whether this was acceptable. I told them this was fine by me, as I knew they used the expression not out of any great respect, but only as a breather for their thoughts.

It was only when I sat with Justice T.P.S. Chawla, who was a barrister and a stickler for form that he insisted that I be addressed correctly.

Once, when I asked a question of a lawyer in court and he started replying, ‘My Lord ...', Justice Chawla interrupted him and requested him to 'address the court correctly'. The lawyer was foxed: he had no idea what to do. When Justice Chawla repeated his refrain and later explained what was expected of him, the lawyer decided to turn his face towards Justice Chawla and answer the question as if it had emanated from him. He thought that that was the easier way out; address the Lord and forget the Lady. I think it was a very rare occasion when I was addressed as My Lady.

Though in her book Subhadra* has referred to Justice Sachar and me as ‘two of the most enlightened judges', when she appeared before us in court, she had somewhat feistily dismissed us both as male chauvinists. Justice Sachar had mildly responded that though he wasn't a male chauvinist, he could still, without offense to logic, be called one, being male, but that surely she could not refer to his sister judge as a male chauvinist. Subhadra had responded that she perceived judges as male and that in any case I was referred to as ' My Lord'.

*(Reference is to Subbhadra Butalia, the author of the book The Gift Of A Daughter)

I think Subhadra had the answer to this question. Maybe we can address the lady judges also as "my lord" - after all we call the lady President of India as Rashtrapati only.

How do you address a judge outside the court? In one of our functions, the Chief Guest was a sitting judge of a High Court. One of the guests was a Chief Commissioner. This judge, while he was a lawyer, had appeared before the Chief Commissioner (a Commissioner as he then was) and the Chief Commissioner used to address the lawyer (as he then was) by his first name. When the Chief Commissioner met the judge in our function, the first question he asked was, "should I call you ‘my lord ‘or by your name?". The judge said, "you can call me by my name."

The great advocate C K Daphtary called on Justice Leila Seth when she became a High Court judge. After looking her up and down, he said, "My dear, my dear, now that you have become a judge, you are expected to broaden your mind and not your hips."

A judge fell into a ditch and a lawyer picked him up. "Is your honour hurt?", asked the lawyer. "Stupid fellow, it is my leg that is hurt, not my honour.", replied the hurt judge.

A practising advocate had filed a PIL in the Supreme Court seeking a direction to do away with the practice of addressing judges as "Your Lordship" and "My Lord".

The Court told the petitioner that it is not mandatory to call judges as Lords;judges should be addressed in a respectful and dignified manner and it is not compulsory to call them‘My Lord', ‘Your Lordship' or ‘Your Honour'. "When did we say it is compulsory. You can only call us in a dignified manner," the Bench observed.

The eminent lawyer Fali Nariman mentions in his fascinating autobiography 'Before Memory fades…' 

"… a city court judge and a district judge must be addressed as 'Your Honour', and (most important of all) a high court judge must always be addressed as 'Your Lordships' (believe me, the judges simply love it). Years ago, I appeared before a judge who had just been' elevated' from the city civil court to the high court, and was particular about how he should hence forth be addressed. My opponent who had appeared before him in the adjoining building, the city civil and sessions court, imagined he was still addressing a city court judge and went on calling him' Your Honour'. The judge grimaced at this indignity. My opponent had a good case. But he lost! Judges are human "

There are many advocates nowadays addressing Commissioners and lower officers as "my lord" - and perhaps that helps. 

Then how do you address a lady judge - 'my lord' doesn't really suit - but is it okay to call her, "my lady"? 

A couple of years ago, The Punjab & Haryana High Court in a note to a ‘Cause List' mentioned:


A few months ago, the question came up in the Gujarat High Court when Chief Justice Sonia Gokani said,"the traditional appellations for judges were "extremely feudalistic" and remnants of colonialism. "We feel that either "sir" or "madam" should be used… It ought to be Sir. This is the correct method as opposed to "My lord" or "Your honour." Therefore, let it be gender neutral.......

I used to correspond with a retired High Court judge and I used to address him 'My lord' and he used to address me 'Mr. Vijay Kumar'. I told him, 'you can call me Vijay'. He replied, 'if Vijay is in, My Lord is out'.

Until Next week


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