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Above: Kerala HC, has allowed advocates to appear without black coat and gown in lower courts during summer

In an interesting case, an advocate of a lower court in Kerala has petitioned the Kerala High Court over being reprimanded by a judicial officer for not wearing the official black gown of his office to court

By NV Ravindranathan Nair in Thiruvananthapuram

Advocates can now appear in lower courts without wearing their traditional black gown and black coat during summer. This order was delivered by Justice Shaji P Chali of the Kerala High Court on a petition by an advocate, Deepak JM, who sought directions to permit advocates to appear in lower courts without the traditional black coat and gown. Justice Chali said that during summer, advocates need to wear only white shirts, black pants and black ties while appearing in court.

It seems the colonial hangover still persists in the Indian judiciary as judges continue to deliver orders that create a distance from the hoi polloi.

The latest example of this was a judicial officer denying Deepak JM a hearing in the trial court because he was not properly dressed. He was wearing a white shirt with a black tie and black trousers while appearing in the case. He had opted not to wear the black gown of advocates, citing the temperature which had crossed 40 degrees centigrade. He also mentioned several cases of people experiencing sunburn all across Kerala. But the judge did not let him present the case.

Following this, Deepak moved the High Court. He told the judge that the Bar Council of India had changed the dress code for lawyers as per circular number 6/2002 issued on January 25, 2002. The circular said that wearing a black coat is not necessary while appearing in courts other than the Supreme Court and High Courts during summer. But the trial court judge did not permit him even then.

In fact, on April 6, 2016, a division bench of the Kerala High Court comprising Justices Thottathil B Radhakrishnan and Anu Sivaraman passed an order saying advocates can consider options regarding official attire in lower courts given the fact that no clear guidelines existed in this matter. The Court had also directed the Bar Council to submit a detailed affidavit regarding the issue. In lower courts, just a simple white shirt and tie have to be considered permissible and legal, the Court said. It had also suggested a relook at the adaptation of the British jury attire for India where the weather conditions are quite different. The High Court said that the gown was a colonial vestige and reconsideration was welcome.

It has been pointed out that a dress code is a symbol of confidence and discipline and a proud part of an individual’s personality as a professional. The balance between maintaining court decorum and permitting freedom in an individual’s lifestyle is most well-defined in a lawyer’s dress code.

American standards of criminal justice say that because the attorney is an officer of the court, he should support the court’s dignity by following its rules of decorum. Traditionally, the English court regulated a barrister’s dress code in such a manner that even the growth of an attorney’s beard or cut of clothes was subject to scrutiny. India inherited a part of this system with minor modifications.

Even after former President Pranab Mukherjee decided to stop the practice of his office being addressed as “His Excellency” and “His Lordship”, remnants of the British Raj continue as many judges still enjoy being addressed in such a manner not only in courtrooms, but also at public functions. Whenever people welcome or propose a vote of thanks to dignitaries at a function, which includes a judge, he is still add­ressed as His/Her Excell­ency or His/Her Lordship. There has been no instance of judges asking anyone to stop this practice.

Welcoming the High Court order on advocates’ modified dress code, S Sreekala, an advocate in the Trivandrum court, said that there was no necessity for a fresh order on the dress code of advocates as the BCI had already issued guidelines in this regard in 2016. “It is only in the Supreme Court, High Court, Lokayukta, Kerala Administrative Tribunal and State Consumer Complaints Redressal Commission where proceedings are held in air-conditioned courtrooms that advocates need to wear black coats and gowns. In other courts, male advocates need to wear only white shirt, black pants and black tie, while for female advocates, a regional dress with subdued colours is permitted,” she said. In the absence of opposition, judicial officers, she said, were abrogating more powers and going unchallenged.

In another case which highlights the colonial mindset of judges, the registrar of Allahabad High Court recently issued a note that “as per the tradition, everyone would stop as a mark of respect to judges whenever they walked past for court sittings or retiring to their chambers”. It directed the Court staff to “pay the highest respect” to the judges. It warned the staff that “any deviation in this regard will be viewed seriously”.

“It has often been noticed that while Hon’ble judges pass through [sic] the galleries for sittings in the court and also retiring to their lordship’s chambers, the officials/officers passing in the way [sic] do not stop to wait for the Hon’ble judges to cross them [sic], which is clearly an act of disrespect,” the Registrar said.

“It is therefore directed that the officials/officers while passing through [sic] the galleries meant for the movement of the Hon’ble judges shall stop whenever they see that the Hon’ble judges are passing through [sic] the galleries and pay the highest respect to their Lordships.”

As per tradition, everyone would stop as a mark of respect to judges in such cases, the registrar noted. However, he said that this “graceful tradition is being ignored”. It called this “a clear case of disrespect to judges”.

It is obvious the registrar’s order could not have been issued without the knowledge of the judges.

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