As temperatures soar in Delhi’s oppressive summer, Supreme Court lawyers in their sweeping, heat-trapping black robes must have read sweet hope in additional solicitor-general Indira Jaising’s tweet: “Summer is hear (sic), why do we need the gown? If the High Court can get rid of it, why not the Supreme Court?” Maybe even the ‘hear’ is a Freudian slip on her part, an expression of an earnest desire to be heard. The court is taking a short summer vacation, and Indira’s tweet may get some mulling over. If something comes of it at all, what those 140 characters achieve could be as sweeping as what happened when the Bar Council adopted a resolution to drop the “milords”, “your lordships” and so on, colonial forms of addressing judges that made way for the formal yet just that bit egalitarian “your honour” or “the honourable court”. In fact, some senior advocates drop even that on occasion, making do with a simple “sir”.
But the robe is a sticky issue. It is not only seen as lending gravitas to court proceedings but also as giving the profession a visual identity, much like white coats for doctors and hospital green or blue for surgeons. Some advocates, like Nikhil Mehra, don’t really want the suit and robe to go. “There’s a certain professional decorum in wearing the robe and the Supreme Court, after all, is the tallest court of the land,” he says and, should there be a change, he’d prefer the option of wearing the robe over shirt and trousers instead of over the formal suit, as is done now.
Many of the practices at Indian courts—seating judges higher, with liveried peons in attendance and the use of English in the higher courts, for example—are imperial vestiges. But the robe (or gown, as some call it) is also mandated by law. The Advocates Act of 1961 says “lawyers should be dressed in a sober and dignified manner in the court” and prescribes the following: for men, a black buttoned-up coat or sherwani with trousers, or a black open-breasted coat, stiff white collar and soft, white bands; for women, sarees or long skirts. Both men and women are expected to wear robes. Some have protested in the past. There’s the story of an advocate turning up in court in shirt and trousers and the judge ordering him to come back in a robe.
“The court should let go of such symbolism,” says Indira. “It’s a legacy of the British and serves no purpose. If we must indeed wear something formal, let it be short coats.” One suggestion on this came from a naval officer, who says lawyers could go for white—more suited to Delhi summers—instead of oppressive black. Lawyers are hoping the Supreme Court might take a cue from the Delhi High Court, which a few years ago brought some relief to lawyers by exempting them from wearing black robes during the summer. In winter, they revert to black robes, but it’s something many of them wish they didn’t have to. It’s a relic of the past, they say, nothing more than empty symbolism. Some even think it stifles the practice. “Judges don’t pay attention to lawyers who don’t dress appropriately and who don’t speak in English,” says Ashok Aggarwal, an advocate at the high court. His robes, he complains, give him rashes and he has nowhere to take this special problem as long as lawyers are required to be robed. There are lawyers who joke about there being a hierarchy of gowns on display in court—the higher a lawyer’s standing in court, the more expensive the fabric and the bespoke cut.
But the formalist camp (if it might be called that) has its own arguments—tradition, identity, solemnity—about which it’s as fervent as the opposing camp. As Mehra puts it, “When our judgements look to the English or American courts and cite them and when our legal system derives from our colonial past, why should there be so much fuss over something like a gown?”
An idea on Twitter can set off a thousand proliferating tweets. But the law will have to take its own course.