No Disrespect in Addressing Chief Justice of India as ‘Mr Chief Justice’

Addressing a judge in the court as “my lord”, “your lordship” or “your honour” has been a matter of divided opinion many a time, not only in the Bar or Bench, but also in the Supreme Court (SC) too. However, the issue remains as such for long as it is, with absolutely no change.

During the hearing of a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) Petition filed in 2013 by a 75 year old advocate Shiv Sagar Tiwari stating that addressing the judge as “my lord or your lordship” in courts was a relic of colonial era and a sign of slavery and pleading that the practice should be banned, the SC bench consisting of Justices H L Dattu and S A Bobde has made it clear that they do not insist on such an exclusive mode of addressing and what is required is nothing but a respectable way of addressing the Judge.

The court clarified it in unequivocal terms that one can address a judge ‘Sir’, ‘your honour’, ‘your lordship’ or ‘my lord’ as the Bar prefers to, as they are some of the appropriate terms that express due respect. The court however declined to ban the use of those terms and issue a direction to the courts not to address the judges in such a traditional manner as pleaded for. The Bench thereon placed the contentious issue before the Bar itself stating that it is for the Bar to choose the appropriate term such as ‘Sir’, ‘Your Lordship’ or ‘Your Honour’ to address the judge.

In the year 2006, the Bar Council of India passed a resolution that nobody would address the court in India as ‘my lord’ and ‘your lordship’. In fact the resolution was an exercise in excess of BCI’s power. The resolution did not evoke any response and the advocates continued to address judges as in the past partly out of entrenched habit and partly out of fear of falling in disfavour with the judges. In 2006, Justice Chandru of Madras High Court asked lawyers to not address him ‘my lord’, quoting the 2006 Bar Council resolution.

However on 12th March 1973, a full court of the Supreme Court, after considering remarks from almost all the Chief Justices of the High Court on the mode of addressing the court, held that the Chief Justice of the SC may be addressed by the Bar as ‘Mr Justice’ or ‘Mr Chief Justice’ as the case may be and the form of addressing the Court would be ‘this Honourable Court’. ( Please see 2014 KLT Journal 50 : it carries a copy of the letter dated 19th April 1973 of the then Chief Justice of India addressed to the then Chief Justices of Kerala High Court on this issue) It was also agreed that where in the course of arguments it becomes difficult to address a judge as ‘Mr Justice’, the presiding judge may be address just as ‘Sir’. The court then decided to introduce the new mode of address from 1st May 1973 in consultation with the Bar Associations. Similar decisions were taken in relation to the Subordinate Courts too. However the advocates continue to address the judges in the same way they have been addressing them since the beginning of the court system in India.

The Bench is ready to change but the Bar is not. The Bar has to set a new standard for legal interaction between the Bench and the Bar. The ball is now in the Bar’s court. It is the duty of the Bar to take the matter forward if it wants to end this inherited colonial practice and start a new mode of addressing which goes well with our democratic tradition in our court rooms.