Eminent jurist Fali S. Nariman, in his memoirs Before Memory Fades, recalled his appearance before a judge who had just been promoted from the city civil court to the High Court. Nariman’s opponent kept calling him “Your Honour”. The judge grimaced at what he perceived as an indignity—the practice in India is to refer to judges in High Courts and the Supreme Court as “My Lord” or “Your Lordship”. “My opponent had a good case. But he lost! Judges are human,” wrote Nariman.
Nariman advised aspiring lawyers to always address a court correctly and said judges in the upper courts must always be addressed as “Your Lordship”. He wrote in brackets: “Believe me, the judges simply love it.”
Despite the growing unease with the titles, seen as colonial and carrying feudal overtones (some even say they are against the constitutional principle of equality), Nariman appeared to have been proven correct when Chief Justice of India S.A. Bobde objected to a lawyer addressing him “Your Honour”, during a hearing on August 13. The CJI said it was an American usage. The lawyer said there was nothing prescribed by law as to how a judge should be addressed, but Bobde said it was a matter of practice of the court.
It is, however, ironic that Bobde should have objected to being called “Your Honour”. In 2014, he was on a two-judge bench with the then chief justice H.L. Dattu which observed that the only expectation the judges had was that they be addressed in a dignified manner. The bench had disposed of a PIL filed by veteran lawyer Shiv Sagar Tiwari seeking a ban on the use of “My Lord” and “Your Lordship”. Tiwari had argued that the titles denoted slavery. The bench refused to ban the honorifics, but said: “When did we say it is compulsory? You can call ‘Sir’, it is accepted. You call ‘Your Honour’, it is accepted. You call ‘Lordship’, it is accepted.”
“Your Honour” has been accepted in Indian legal practice as an appropriately modern substitute for “My Lord” and “Your Lordship”. The Bar Council of India on May 6, 2006, had passed a resolution stating that the form of address to be adopted in the Supreme Court and High Courts was “Your Honour” or “Honourable Court” and, in the subordinate courts and tribunals, it was “Sir” or the equivalent in regional languages.
The resolution came after the Supreme Court, in February 2006, refused to ban the use of the titles. Disposing the Progressive and Vigilant Lawyers’ Forum’s petition seeking to end the use of the titles, the apex court said it was up to the bar council to resolve the issue.
While the Supreme Court has chosen not to specify the correct way to address judges, the Rajasthan High Court, in 2019, issued a notice requesting lawyers and others appearing before the judges not to address them as “My Lord” or “Your Lordship”. It asked lawyers and litigants to call them “Sir” or “Shrimanji”. A resolution passed by a full bench of the High Court said the move was meant to honour the mandate of equality enshrined in the Constitution.
Judges in their individual capacity have also been asking lawyers to desist from using “My Lord” or “Your Lordship” to address them. The most recent instance of this is Chief Justice of Calcutta High Court Thottathil B. Radhakrishnan, who in July, said to officers of the district judiciary and the registry that they should address him as “Sir”.
Interestingly, “My Lady” or “Your Ladyship” is not used often in Indian courts. Lawyers are not comfortable using the terms, while female judges are also known to have objected to the usage. A few years ago, in the Punjab and Haryana High Court, Justice Daya Chaudhary strongly objected to being called “Your Ladyship” by Advocate General Atul Nanda. Nanda tried to reason with her by referring to the history of the usage of the term. However, Chaudhary was adamant, and Nanda said that he would avoid the usage.
While the bar council’s resolution is clear on how the judges have to be addressed, it largely remains on paper. Even in Rajasthan, despite the High Court’s notice, at least 70 per cent of the lawyers still address judges “My Lord” or “Your Lordship”, said Syed Shahid Hasan, senior advocate and chairman of the Bar Council of Rajasthan. “Judges also like to be called that,” he said. “It is high time these titles are done away with. Judges have to be given respect, but they are not God.”
Former Supreme Court judge Justice K.S. Radhakrishnan rejected the idea that judges like to be addressed in a certain manner. “I don’t think any judge would insist on being called in a certain manner,” he said. “All that is expected is that the chair is shown respect. ‘Your Honour’ is fine. Even ‘Sir’ is fine.”
Lawyers feel the use of the titles has a lot to do with habit and training. The joke that goes around in legal circles is that if the two titles are done away with, majority of the lawyers will not be able to argue since they are so used to starting their argument with “My Lord” or “Your Lordship”. Supreme Court lawyer Sneha Kalita said most litigants use “Sir” to address judges. “They are not used to referring to judges as ‘My Lord’ or ‘Your Lordship’,” she said. “It is a habit we lawyers inculcate from the time we are in law college. A certain level of dignity and respect has to be maintained in the relationship between the bar and the bench.”
Lawyers also talk about peer pressure as a factor determining the use of the titles—if they opt for “Your Honour” when the opposing lawyer is going for “My Lord” or “Your Lordship”, the judge may think they are trying to act smart.
However, Lokenath Chatterjee, advocate, Calcutta High Court, said a majority of the lawyers do not mind using the archaic titles. “It is linked to the majesty of the court and reflects respect towards the institution, and lawyers are a part of that,” he said.
Breaking away from this practice will not be easy for Indian courts.