Demeaning servility or respect, the court has to decide

Preamble and Article 14 of the Constitution guarantees equality before law to all citizens of this democratic republic, in whichever job or activity, they are engaged in. No matter whether the citizen is a politician, a bureaucrat, a judge, a uniformed officer, a law enforcement officer of any description, a doctor, an engineer, a legal professional, an architect or a journalist.

Each activity carries with it a distinctive feature of its relevance, dignity and importance in the society. All them are equal, while playing their respective roles in the welfare and progress of this country. Illogically putting a certain set of individuals on a pedestal higher than all others, when their physical, mental, psychological, academic and other expertise, is at par with others, just because they are chosen to wield the judicial powers of the state for adjudication of rights, liabilities and obligations inter se, among the fellow citizens, therefore, it is an anathema to the concept of a democratic state.

The sphere of responsibilities and the extent of power that the Judges hold over other fellow citizens because of their esteemed position, they are entitled to high respect for the majesty of institution of judiciary. A respectful and dignified mode of addressing them in or out of court is very desirable. A plain “Your Honour” or “Sir” or Hon’ble Judge is very appropriate or in Hindi the best form of address is “Manyawar” or “Mahodaya”.

The customary practice, though neither required under the Constitution nor under any other law for the time being in force, of addressing Judges as “My Lord”, “Your Lordship”, is certainly an archaic colonial practice of a gone-by era. This feudalistic mode of address is irrelevant in the present scenario. Respect is a Judge’s right but to expect it in the present customary form is just demeaning servility. Under the constitution the Judges are duty-bound to deliver justice as per dictates of law, equity and good conscience.

A large section of progressive legal fraternity, has been agitating against this highly servile mode of addressing the Judges. In 2006 it was decided by the Bar Council of India, through a resolution and then incorporating it in their rules to do away with this feudalistic mode of addressing the Judges. Responding to that a number of eminent Judges, like Justice Ravindra Bhat, Justice Murlidhar (both sitting Judges of the Supreme Court and P&H High Court), now Retired Judges K. Chandru, K. Kannan, had voluntarily ordered that they should not be addressed as “My Lord”. Even all the Judges of Rajasthan High Court in 2019, have resolved to do away with this colonial practice.

In matters coming before the Supreme Court the benches of Justices H. L. Dattu, Y. K. Sabharwal, Ranjan Gogoi (all the then Chief Justices, now retired) and Justice S. A. Bobde (the present CJI, but when he was a puisine Judge). All the learned Judges agreed that to address the Judges as “My Lord” or “Your Lordship” was neither compulsory nor mandatory, but it all depended on the individual choice of Advocates. However, in their misdirected zeal to please and thereby get relief from the Court, the legal professionals continue with this pernicious practice.

Now what should be done to stop this? The practicing lawyers, howsoever, aged or senior or well off they may be, do not want to give up this servile practice, the ball certainly lies in the Judges’ Court. They have to exert their judicial power to do away with this feudalistic mode of address, which is totally out of tune in a democratic society.

Ironically, this servility syndrome is discernible even when retired judges are presiding over quasi-judicial or arbitral tribunals, and who, barring exceptions of some conscientious ones, still ravel in being addressed by the exalted epithet of My Lord or Your Lordship etc. In my experience, this gimmick of addressing ‘My Lord’ really clicks in the quasi judicial or administrative tribunals like Consumer Commissions, RERA Tribunals, Tax Tribunals, NCLT, where even the superannuated bureaucrats, who are appointed as members of such Tribunals, get elated when they are addressed as ‘My Lord’. 

The real problem lies with ultra-subservient attitude of lawyers and the passive stance of the Judges. Most of the lawyers have deprecated their profession by illogically being servile and assuming the Judges as their masters, who deliver orders so that the lawyers can earn a living. By highlighting this pernicious practice, the only hope now lies in the sagacity of our Hon’ble Judges, who have to put their judicial power into play and ensure that only dignified and unqualified respect is shown to them and not a demeaning servility, which certainly is out of tune in a democratic set up.