What should litigants wear to court? Judges continue to dish out a dressing down

The debate has reignited after a video went viral in which Justice PB Bajanthri of the Patna High Court was seen reprimanding an IAS officer for being inappropriately dressed for court.
Dress Code
Dress Code

What is the dress code for litigants appearing before a court of law?

This question has once again assumed significance after a video in which Justice PB Bajanthri of the Patna High Court could be seen reprimanding an officer of the Indian Administrative Services (IAS) for being inappropriately dressed for court went viral on social media.

The officer, Bihar's Principal Secretary for Housing and Urban Development, was wearing formal pants with an open-collared shirt. The judge insisted that the officer should have worn a closed collar shirt and a coat/blazer.

So what is considered appropriate attire for litigants to wear to court? The issue is not unprecedented and has been discussed by courts on several occasions.

As early as 1933, the Bombay High Court in Emperor v. Chhaganlal Ishwardas Shah heard the case of an assessor who was burdened with a fine of ₹3 by a sessions judge for being improperly dressed to court. He was wearing a dress consisting of a pheran (a cloak worn traditionally in Kashmir), a cap and a scarf. The sessions judge had reasoned that an assessor ought to wear a coat, and that anybody not wearing a coat was improperly dressed.

On appeal, the Bombay High Court opined that it is "rather a matter of taste." In fact, the High Court judge recorded his own opinion, stating that a pheran looked better without a coat.

Finding that the intention of the assessor was not to insult the court, but was actually to ensure his own comfort, the order of the sessions judge was set aside and the fine was refunded.

However, in recent times, courts seem to have taken a contrary view.

In August 2017, the Himachal Pradesh High Court took grave exception to a female government official appearing before it in a multi-hued checked shirt and jeans. Consequently, a Bench of Justices Tarlok Singh Chauhan and Ajay Mohan Goel laid down rules to govern the sartorial choice of litigants, especially government officials appearing before it.

The High Court bemoaned the fact that slackness in attire was affecting judicial decorum and undermining the majesty of the law. It reiterated that government officials appearing before the Court must be dressed in formal clothing or in appropriate attire and warned them against dressing in an indiscreet manner.

The Supreme Court is no stranger to this controversy, having come down on bureaucrats appearing in "improper" clothes.

A Bench of Justices J Chelameswar and Sanjay Kishan Kaul had, in 2018, taken objection to the clothing worn by a senior bureaucrat of the Rajasthan government and refused to hear the case, while asking him to adhere to a "proper dress code".

During the hearing, Rajasthan's Additional Chief Secretary of Urban Development and Housing Department was asked to look into the rules regarding the dress code for bureaucrats.

In a similar occurrence, Bihar's Chief Secretary was refused a hearing by the top court for "not being properly dressed" while he was in black trousers and a bandhgala coat. Although the officer tendered an unconditional apology to the Court, the case was not heard.

In fact, back in 2007, the Patna High Court took a strong view against a duo of State officials who were "badly dressed". The Court imposed a fine of ₹5,000 on each of them. Following this, the Court also directed a strict implementation of a dress code from 1954. Reportedly, the detailed dress code called for western dresses to be replaced with Indian clothing, and directed the avoidance of "loud, gaudy colours".

Similarly, the Bombay High Court had also devised a dress code for litigants way back in 2011 after two foreigners appearing before it were fined for not dressing properly. The notice prescribing a dress code reportedly required litigants to appear wearing "modest" dresses in "sober" colours.

In 2017, the Jharkhand government asked its officers to refrain from wearing casual clothes while appearing before a court of law. This, after the Jharkhand High Court took exception to then Chief Secretary Rajbala Verma appearing in person while draped in a colourful printed saree.

Even as courts continue pulling up those appearing before them in what is deemed to be improper clothing, nearly no official guidelines on what is "proper" clothing appear to have been implemented or advertised.

The Jodhpur Bench of the Rajasthan High Court in a notification from July 4, 2018, laid down a dress requirement for persons serving in the armed forces while appearing before it either in an official or unofficial capacity.

There are practical difficulties associated with laying down a dress code. The concepts of "decency" and "modesty" are subjective, and vary from judge to judge. What may appear "tasteful" to one judge may prompt another to ask the litigant if he is going to a cinema hall.

On similar lines, the words of Justice Potter Stewart of the US Supreme Court in the decision of Jacobellis v. Ohio encapsulate the predicament at hand. When asked to determine whether a film passed the obscenity test, he said,

"I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description, and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it, and the motion picture involved in this case is not that."

Another aspect to consider is the vast socio-economic and cultural diversity of litigants in a country like India. Can one expect a person from a rural background to be dressed in a bespoke suit on his day in court?

So what is considered appropriate to wear to court? In the absence of any formal guidelines, the answer is, perhaps, 'the judges know it when they see it'.

Sannah Mudbidri contributed to this story.

Bar and Bench - Indian Legal news