Law Lords

In questions of parity and tolerance, words do matter

Delhi | Published: January 13, 2014 12:24:45 am

The Supreme Court of India conceded recently that judges need not be addressed as “My Lord” or “Lordship”, adding that a plain but respectful “Sir” is adequate. The indefatigable lawyer-applicant Shiv Sagar Tiwari, 75, in a PIL, deprecated the practice, likening it to slavery. It was dismissed, with the court saying that issuing a directive for address was beyond the scope of the petition (January 7, The Indian Express), but Tiwari was free in future to use whatever language he deems appropriate.

Though the Bar Council of India had, long ago, passed a resolution acknowledging these lofty addresses of “My Lordship” as relics of our colonial past, it’s highly unlikely any lawyer will risk the ire of a judge with “Sir” when he might be expecting a servile and ingratiating “My Lord”. Tiwari has raised a pertinent question at a time when Supreme Court judges have displayed that they are only too human, prone to the same follies as everybody else. So why should they be addressed so deferentially? In his autobiography Before Memory Fades, legal luminary S Fali Nariman cautions that High Court judges must always be addressed as “Your Lordship”, and in brackets, adds: “Believe me, the judges simply love it.” He goes on to quote a case which he won possibly because his opposing counsel addressed the judge with the far less sycophantic “Your Honour”. In Nariman’s words, “The judge grimaced at this indignity”. You can almost sympathise with why magistrates end up feeling a little entitled if they go through life with people fawning over them with cheesy flattery like this.

A top Google search for “My Lordship” throws up the colloquial application of titles in Edwardian England. It goes on to explain the subtle but definite differences between Your Serene Highness and Your Majesty. Another search for “My Lord” directs us to a verse from Shakespeare’s King Lear. Titles denoting excellence have always existed. But in India, besides in the Armed Forces, no special privileges arise from them. In music, a distinguished conductor virtuoso instrumentalist may be known as a “Maestro”. In aviation, pilots in command of a large civil aircraft are often addressed as Captain, but this tradition is diminishing in the US and EU countries. In some ultra liberal schools in the UK, enforced authority is shunned, and there is a first name policy for teachers.

Three-year-olds call teachers by their first names. Language and terminology is constantly evolving to reflect contemporary mores and in the last decade or so, equality of the genders. Recently, the thrust of English has been towards gender neutral nouns. For example, the word actress, now almost defunct, because it was argued it carries an unneccessary flounce, and of being secondary to actor. Air hostess has become flight attendant. The word “retarded” has pretty much been purged out of existence, replaced with the far more nuanced, intellectual disability. Selfie wasn’t even a word two years ago.

Even if it’s just a show of respect, this tradition of addressing judges subserviently puts them in an exalted sphere and carries a distinctly feudal ring. Female judges at least will cheer the end of “My Lordship” since Indian lawyers who have been trained in a male dominated judicial system aren’t so comfortable with “My Ladyship” and they are routinely and I’m sure exasperatingly, called “My Lord”. Inclusive language is essential to drive home the point, that titled, superior, distinguished or not, everybody is the same in the eyes of the law.

By Leher  Kala

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