Modernizing judicial address: From ‘Lordship’ to ‘Sir’

The usage of titles such as “Lordship” may inadvertently propagate a semblance of hierarchy within the courtroom, where judges could be perceived as being elevated above the common citizen.

The practice of addressing judges in courtrooms has long been a topic of discussion and debate. While some jurisdictions still use the archaic term “Lordship” to address judges, there is a growing consensus that addressing judges as “Sir” or “Madam” is more appropriate in contemporary society.

In a recent instance, during a proceeding before the Supreme Court, Chief Justice of India DY Chandrachud encountered a lawyer who initially employed the address “Sir” instead of the more customary “Your Lordship.” Recognizing the deviation, the lawyer expeditiously rectified his statement by reverting to “Your Lordship.” To the surprise of some, Chief Justice Chandrachud, rather than adhering to the conventional practice, lauded the use of “Sir” and expressed his appreciation for the lawyer’s preference. The lawyer, in response, elucidated that his corporate background had conditioned him to use “Sir,” but he subsequently reverted to the customary address of “Your Lordship.”

The practice of addressing judges as "My Lord" or "Your Lordship" in India has historical roots dating back to the British colonial era. During British rule, the British legal system was established in India, and the British traditions and forms of address were integrated into the Indian judicial system. After gaining independence in 1947, India continued many of the legal traditions inherited from the British colonial era, including the practice of addressing judges as “My Lord” or “Your Lordship.” This tradition persisted as a mark of respect for the judiciary and as a symbol of continuity with the legal system established during British rule.

Over the years, there have been debates and discussions about whether this practice should be modernized or replaced with more contemporary and gender-neutral forms of address. Some argue that using titles like “Lordship” creates a perception of hierarchy within the courtroom, while others contend that it upholds tradition and maintains the dignity of the judiciary.

In 2006, the Bar Council of India (BCI) Rules underwent an amendment with the primary objective of instituting uniform standards of professional decorum for lawyers across the nation. This amendment mandated that lawyers should employ either “Your Honour” or “Your Lordship” when addressing judges of High Courts and the Supreme Court.

Furthermore, within the BCI Rules Governing Advocates, a new Chapter IIIA was incorporated through a gazette notification in May 2006. This chapter underscored the significance of maintaining a respectful demeanor toward the court and upholding the dignity of the judicial office. It delineated that in the Supreme Court and High Courts, lawyers were obliged to utilize the titles “Your Honour” or “Hon’ble Court”. In contrast, when appearing before subordinate courts and tribunals, lawyers were provided the option to employ the more colloquial address of “Sir” or its regional language equivalent.

In 2014, lawyer Shiv Sagar Tiwari filed a petition before the Supreme Court, seeking the imposition of a consistent standard for addressing judges across all courts in the nation, encompassing both the higher judiciary and the subordinate ranks. Drawing upon the 2006 BCI Rules that prescribed uniform guidelines, Tiwari contended that the customary practice of addressing judges in the Supreme Court and High Courts as “My Lord” and “Your Lordship” should be discontinued.

The apex court, however, refrained from issuing any directive in this regard, opting instead to vest the discretion of address with the lawyers themselves. Nevertheless, it appended a proviso that any mode of addressing the judges must be conducted with an unwavering commitment to preserving the standards of dignity and respect.

However, in 2021, Chief Justice of India Sharad Arvind Bobde, presiding over a bench of three judges, considered a public interest plea proffered by law student Shrikant Prasad. During the course of this hearing, Chief Justice Bobde clarified that judges in the Supreme Court of India should not be addressed as “Your Honour.” He accentuated that this title was more aptly suited for judges in the Supreme Court of the United States or for magistrates within our nation.

A fundamental tenet of any equitable legal system resides in the principle that all individuals stand on an equal footing before the law. The usage of titles such as “Lordship” may inadvertently propagate a semblance of hierarchy within the courtroom, where judges could be perceived as being elevated above the common citizen. This contradicts the very essence of equality that is integral to the foundations of any legal system. Employing “Sir” as a mode of address posits judges as equal members of society, underscoring their role as public servants tasked with upholding the law, rather than as rulers or lords.

The usage of the term "Lordship" invokes associations with a bygone feudal era, where titles and nobility exerted a considerable influence in societal structures. Within modern democratic contexts, where the rule of law and meritocracy are cherished values, these feudal connotations seem anachronistic and incongruous. By substituting “Sir” for these historical titles, we dispense with these antiquated associations and accentuate the contemporary and democratic character of our legal systems.

Addressing judges as “Sir” strikes an equilibrium between demonstrating respect and preserving dignity without gratuitously elevating their status. It serves as an acknowledgment of their role in the administration of justice and the wealth of legal expertise they bring to their positions. Simultaneously, it permits individuals appearing in court, irrespective of their background, to approach the legal system with a sense of parity and deference.

Another pivotal facet of addressing judges as “Sir” lies in its gender-neutrality. Historically, the usage of “Lordship” to address male judges and “Ladyship” for their female counterparts engendered unnecessary distinctions based on gender. In an era that champions gender equality as a central societal aspiration, the employment of a singular, gender-neutral term such as “Sir” is both inclusive and appropriate.

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Society is in a perpetual state of evolution, and language invariably evolves alongside it. The usage of “Lordship” appears antiquated and disconnected from the contemporary milieu. Embracing the more modern and adaptable “Sir” harmonizes the legal system with contemporary values and acts as a bridge between the judiciary and the public.

The practice of addressing judges as “Sir” in lieu of “Lordship” transcends the realm of mere semantics; it constitutes a reflection of the values and principles that underpin modern legal systems. Through this transition, we underscore the principle of equality before the law, eliminate feudal connotations and promote respect and dignity for all participants in the legal process. It represents a small yet meaningful stride toward cultivating a more inclusive and egalitarian legal system, one that steadfastly upholds the ideals of justice and fairness for all.

Ummar Jamal is a fourth year law student at Kashmir University.

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