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Explained: In CJI’s objection to ‘Your Honour’, a renewed debate on court etiquette

For years, there have been efforts to purge from courtroom protocol salutations such as “My Lord” and “Your Lordship” — a practice inherited from British rule.

By: Explained Desk | New Delhi |
Updated: March 4, 2021 10:38:24 am
Chief Justice of India S A Bobde at his residence (Express Photo/File)

The debate around court etiquette in India was triggered again on Tuesday (February 23) after a Supreme Court Bench headed by Chief Justice of India (CJI) S A Bobde objected to a petitioner addressing judges as “Your Honour”.

“When you call us Your Honour, you either have the Supreme Court of United States or the Magistrate in mind. We are neither,” the CJI told the petitioner, a law student.

After the student apologised and said that he would henceforth use “My Lords”, the CJI replied: “Whatever. We are not particular what you call us. But don’t use incorrect terms.”

CJI Bobde had taken exception to judges being addressed as “Your Honour” in August 2020 as well. Then too, he had asked the petitioner whether he was appearing before the US Supreme Court, and reminded him that this was not the accepted practice in Indian courts.

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Efforts to end colonial salutations

For years, there have been efforts to purge from courtroom protocol salutations such as “My Lord” and “Your Lordship” — a practice inherited from British rule.

The Advocates Act of 1961, under section 49(1)(c), empowers the Bar Council of India to make rules on professional and etiquette standards to be observed by advocates.

To address this issue, a Resolution by the Bar Council of India in 2006 added Chapter IIIA to Part VI of the BCI Rules. The provision and its explanation read as follows:

“CHAPTER-IIIA3: To address the Court

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.”

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As the words “My Lord” and “Your Lordship” are relics of a Colonial past, it is proposed to incorporate the above rule showing respectful attitude to the Court.”

Interestingly, while the 2006 notification discouraged the use of “My Lord” and “Your Lordship”, it prescribed “Your Honour” or “Hon’ble Court” as an acceptable way for addressing the Supreme Court & High Courts, and “Sir” in Subordinate Courts and Tribunals.

However, the Bar Council of India issued a statement on Tuesday, saying that it had passed a resolution in 2019 advising advocates not to use it in High Courts and in the top court to maintain the “graciousness and dignity” of the court. It is not clear if the Rules had been amended in line with the resolution.

“The BCI would like to clarify that as far as back on 28th September, 2019 on the request made by Office-Bearers of Bar Association of some High Courts with regard to the Advocates addressing the court, it was resolved that as per mostly preferred and prevalent practice, lawyers of the country be requested to address the Hon’ble Judges of various High Courts and Supreme Court as ‘My Lord’ or ‘Your Lordships’ or ‘Hon’ble Court’, while Lawyers of Subordinate Courts, Tribunals and other Forums may address the Court as ‘Your Honour’ or ‘Sir’ or the equivalent word in respective regional languages,” BCI chairperson Manan Mishra said in a statement.

The matter came before the Supreme Court in 2014, when an advocate filed a PIL asking that the archaic expressions, which he said were a symbol of slavery and against the dignity of the country, be banned. (Shiv Sagar Tiwari vs Secretary General SCI and Ors)

Justices H L Dattu and Bobde had rejected the petition as a “negative prayer”, and said that the terms “My Lord” and “Your Lordship” had never been compulsory.

“To address the court, what do we want? Only a respectable way of addressing. You call (judges) Sir, it is accepted. You call it Your Honour, it is accepted. You call Lordship it is accepted. These are some of the appropriate ways of expression, and we accept everything,” the bench said.

In 2019, the Rajasthan High Court had resolved to censure the salutations “My Lord” and “Your Lordship” from courtroom protocol, underscoring the “mandate of equality enshrined in the Constitution”. The expression “Your Honour”, however, remained unaffected by the order.

Custom in the UK

The official website of the Courts and Tribunals Judiciary in the UK states that judges of the Court of Appeals and the High Court are to be addressed in court as “My Lord” or “My Lady”; Circuit judges as “Your Honour”; Magistrates as “Your Worship”, or “Sir” or “Madam”; and District judges and Tribunal judges as “Sir” or “Madam”.

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In the US and the Commonwealth

On the US Supreme Court website, a document titled ‘Guide for Counsel in Cases to be argued before the Supreme Court of The United States’ states:

“Under the present practice, “Mr.” is only used in addressing the Chief Justice. Others are referred to as “Justice Scalia,” “Justice Ginsburg,” or “Your Honor.” Do not use the title “Judge.” If you are in doubt about the name of a Justice who is addressing you, it is better to use “Your Honor” rather than mistakenly address the Justice by another Justice’s name.”

The Singapore Supreme Court website also says that the Judge/Registrar can be addressed as “Your Honour”.

In Australia as well, in the High Court and the Federal Court, the judges are to be addressed as “Your Honour”.

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