Recently, the Hon'ble Chief Justice of India Shri. Sharad Arvind Bobde, on the sidelines of a hearing, said that doctors had advised not to wear gowns and coats, as it makes it easier to catch virus and spread the chances of COVID-19. This was followed by a circular being issued on 13.05.2020 by the Supreme Court of India read, "As a precautionary measure to contain the spread of COVID-19 infection under the prevailing conditions, the Competent Authority has been pleased to direct that the advocates may wear 'plain white-shirt/white-salwar-kameez/white saree, with a plain-white neckband' during the hearings before the Supreme Court of India through Virtual Court System." The Bar Council of India vide an Administrative Order dated 14.05.2020 has exempted advocates from wearing the black robes and coats until further orders. With this, the debate for a permanent change or modification in dress code for advocates has again begun.
The history of a dress code in the legal system dates back to the 13th century when Edward III of England came up with costumes for judges based on a "Dress Code" for attending the Royal Court.
Three stories are found in England regarding using of robes. Firstly, robes were adopted in 1685 as the symbol of mourning for King Charles II. These "mourning robes" were designed to have pleated shoulders and bell-shaped sleeves. Again, the higher ranking lawyers' robes set them apart with flap collars and different sleeves. Similar such robes are worn in India today. The wigs also follow the fashion of that era. It was believed that gowns and wigs gave a degree of anonymity to judges and lawyers. Different styles of wigs were used depending on the hierarchy. Secondly, in 1694 it was found that all of the judges attended the funeral of Queen Mary II dressed in black robes as a sign of mourning. Since the mourning period lasted a few more years after Queen Mary's burial, the custom of wearing black robes became entrenched in the English judiciary. Thirdly, in memory of Queen Anne in 1714, the same mourning was followed. Italian judges resembling English judges in the 18th century wore black robes, white neck bands and white wigs. Thus, from the tradition of three Monarchs, the tradition of black robes spread among the British and then throughout the world.
Biblical history traces the white neck band symbolising innocence. The two pieces of white cloth joined together to form the advocate's band represent the "tablets of laws" and "tablets of stone". These are the tablets which, according to the biblical history, were used by Moses for inscribing the Ten Commandments, which he is supposed to have received from a burning bush on Mount Sinai. The Ten Commandments are believed to be the first example of a uniform coded law. Thus white advocates' bands represent the upholding of the laws of God and men.
Therefore, this is the custom started by the British. They did so, because it was fashion of that particular era or they probably used it because of the local climatic conditions in Britain. As rulers, they imposed the same culture and customs on the 'colonies' they acquired without taking into consideration the local climatic conditions or general socio-economic conditions. However, many of these 'colonies' continued with legacy and adopted the same system, the same culture, the same laws and even the same dress without any changes even after they became independent.
As the Indian system is influenced by the British rulers due to their reign, the Advocates Act, 1961, makes it mandatory for a lawyer to wear a 'black robe' or 'coat' with a white band in continuity of the same.
The rules framed by the Bar Council of India under Section 49(1)(GG) of the Advocates Act, 1961, prescribe the same dress for all the advocates, which are as follows:
FORM OF DRESS OR ROBES TO BE WORN BY ADVOCATES
[RULE UNDER SECTION 49(1)(GG) OF THE ACT]
Advocates, appearing in the Supreme Court, High Court, subordinate courts, tribunals or authorities shall wear the following as part of their dress which shall be sober and dignified;
Advocates other than lady advocates:
1. (a) a black buttoned-up coat, chapkan, achkan, black sherwani and white bands with advocate's gown, or
(b) a black open breast coat, white collar, stiff or soft, and white bands with advocates' gowns.
In either case long trousers (white, black, striped or grey) or dhoti.
2. (a) black and full or half-sleeve jacket or blouse, white collar, stiff or soft, and white bands with advocates' gowns;
(b) sarees or long skirts (white or black or any mellow or subdued colour without any print or design) or flares (white, black or black-striped or gray):
Provided that the wearing of advocate's gown shall be optional except when appearing in the Supreme Court or in a High Court.
Provided further that in court other than the Supreme Court, High Court, District Court, Sessions Court or City Civil Court, a black tie may be worn instead of bands."
The amended Rules in Chapter IV, Part VI of the Bar Council of India Rules relating to "Form of Dresses or Robes to be worn by Advocates" had been communicated to the State Bar Councils vide Circular No. 6/2002 dated 25.01.2002. The Bar Council of India, at its meeting dated 23rd/24th February 2002, considered the doubts raised relating to Dress Rules and after consideration, the following decision had been taken:
"In the change brought about in the dress rules, there appears to be some confusion in so far as the subordinate courts are concerned. For removal of any doubt it is clarified that so far as the courts other than Supreme Court and High Courts are concerned during summer while wearing 'Black Coat' is not mandatory, the advocates may appear in a white shirt with black or striped or gray pant with black tie or band and collar".
In a case of Prayag Das v/s Civil Judge, Bulandshahr (AIR 1974 All. 133) the prayer of an advocate to appear in court wearing dhoti and kurta was turned down by the Hon'ble Allahabad High Court.
In the year 1996, about 300 lawyers had signed a memorandum for modifying the dress code and submitted it to the Bar Council of Maharashtra and Goa.
A Pune-based organisation Human Rights and Law Defenders (HRLD) has been pressing for this issue since 2002. A few years ago, it carried out a survey of 120 lawyers at Pune's District & Sessions Court to gauge the sentiment around the sartorial protocol. While nearly half of the respondents agreed that the current dress code was not suited to the Indian climate, around two-thirds failed to appreciate the health ramifications of the black coat and the need to look for a change. Strangely, while more than 86% said a dress code was necessary, a good 65% also averred that the current one had become more of a status symbol and served no real purpose.
Dr. Vincent Panikulangara, a practising advocate filed a writ petition (W.P. (C) No. 10994 of 2010) before the Hon'ble Kerala High Court inter alia praying for directions to the Bar Council to make rules for a dress code for advocates having regard to the climatic conditions and disassociating from the British colonial hangover. However, the petition was dismissed on 07.12.2015.
A dress code expresses sanctity and commitment of lawyers towards judicial institutions and enhances their responsibility for the profession. It is not merely a status symbol but enables to bring out discipline among lawyers. Wearing appropriate clothes in a courtroom is extremely important, as observed by Justice Chandrashekhar Dharmadhikari, former Chief Justice of the Bombay High Court, "Not having a dress code can jeopardise the court's dignity. But it should be in tune with our circumstances and psyche." The dress code should be suitably modified considering several factors which are discussed below.
India is mainly a country of very hot and humid climate for most part of the year. Other than the court rooms of the Hon'ble Supreme Court and High Courts, none of the court rooms in the country have air-conditioning systems. In fact, even basic amenities like proper ventilation, power supply, fans, coolers, etc. are not available. With global warming, traffic congestion, rising pollution levels, overcrowding of courts, etc. temperatures are rising with every passing year and judges and advocates dressed in layers and layers of black coloured heat absorbing clothing have to bear with the scorching heat and humidity during hearings in the otherwise dingy and overcrowded court rooms. Not all advocates have the luxury of their own private air-conditioned cars. Several lawyers across India depend on two wheelers or public transport for their commute to and from courts. They are as it is burdened with carrying their files, briefs, documents, papers, etc. and are further unnecessarily burdened with the black coat and robe. This leads to profuse sweating, dehydration, skin rashes, exhaustion, fatigue, giddiness and other ailments.
To give some respite to advocates, Bar Councils in various states have allowed advocates practising before Trial Courts to appear without the otherwise mandatory black coat and gown during the 3 months of summer. However, there is no such relaxation for advocates practicing before the Hon'ble Supreme Court, various High Courts and Tribunals. Further, the relaxation for only the 3 months of summer is not sufficient considering that the temperatures in our country are rising and it is extremely hot for almost 9-10 months in a year. The mandatory black coat and gown serve no practical purpose and only add to the suffering.
Justice V. R. Krishna Iyer, a former judge of the Supreme Court and an acclaimed jurist had said, "More than six decades after we bid farewell to the British, the imperial jurisprudence is die-hard and the Indian courts even today copy the British precedents as Indian Law. The Bar and the Bench have borrowed even their costume, including the collar and bands, from the British. India is in dress and forms of address, in precedents and in parliamentary privileges a foster child of Britain. It is time we begin to be truly Indian in our Republic." Preserving and blindly following an archaic attire which is reduced to nothing but a colonial hangover of British rule is not in consonance with modern India and the rapidly progressing legal profession of the 21st century. We have passed that era when one's status in society was judged by elaborate dress. Legal status and societal respect comes through work, performance and the service one renders to one's clients.
The Hon'ble Vice-President of India, Shri. Venkaiah Naidu is also of the firm opinion that the dress code of advocates and judges should change. At a book launch he said, "When I see lawyers and judges I think we must have our own dress, our own system. This is independent India. Our dress and language should indicate our own culture. When I say culture, it means our way of life. A new dress may give you a new identity, we should have our own identity."
On 21.11.2011, the President of the United Kingdom Supreme Court in a press notice revised the dress code. According to the new guidelines, lawyers appearing at the highest court no longer have to wear the traditional wigs and gowns. The purpose of the new costume in line with the court's goal is to make the court as accessible as possible extending the court's commitment to providing an appropriate environment for considered discussion of legal issues. Supreme Court justices wear no legal costume. The relaxed dress code would also apply to advocates appearing before the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council. The lawyers in the family court customarily appeared unrobed in the traditional attire, now they wear formal suits to make it "less intimidating".
In Australia, court dress varies according to jurisdictions of courts from federal to state levels. Plain black robes were worn over normal attire since 1988, but the High Court abandoned the previous court dress of black silk robes, bar jackets, jabots or bands and full-bottomed wigs and lace cuffs on formal occasions and bench wigs for ordinary business. Wigs were abolished in Western Australia for both judges and lawyers in all courts in 2010. Stipendiary Magistrates and justices of the peace do not robe, other than in New South Wells where they have worn a black robe over normal business attire since 2005. Prior to 2010, Barristers did not robe before the Federal Magistrates Court. Barristers are now expected to robe for most hearings, but not for interlocutory or interim matters. Wigs full-bottomed or otherwise are not worn on any occasion.
Now, in many African countries, court dresses are lightweight simply because the full outfit would be too hot for most people to wear in that climate.
Similarly, in many Middle Eastern countries, judges prefer to wear a simplistic costume while denouncing fancy Western robes.
Aside from these countries a few countries have eliminated the tradition of wearing elaborate judicial robes altogether. In Greece and Scandinavia, for example, a suit is fine to wear during any legal proceeding. In Sweden, there is no official court dress for judges and they do not wear gowns. Judges usually wear an ordinary suit.
COVID-19 has brought about extraordinary changes and unprecedented developments in the judicial system and legal profession. Battling all odds, the judiciary and lawyers have embraced e-courts and justice has been delivered in many urgent matters. Many suggestions have been made to use technology for faster disposal of cases, to bring about changes in court procedures and to revamp the court infrastructure. The dress code has also been modified, albeit temporarily, as stated above. It is high time that the dress code for advocates is permanently modified.
In my personal opinion, the black coat and gown must be made "optional". The advocates who have been wearing it with a sense of pride and dignity to the profession and are can bear with the heat or muggy conditions may continue to adorn them. Whereas, the advocates who are severely affected by our climatic conditions will be able to appear in courts without the stuffy black coat and gown and could be more productive in their work.
Further, a white shirt with black tie and black/grey trousers for men and women or traditional wear i.e. white kurta with pajama or dhoti for men and white salwar kameez or saree for women in white and an option of the black sleeveless Nehru jacket should be the dress code for advocates in India. It will be formal, very much Indian, comfortable in our climate and keep up the dignity and sanctity of the legal profession.
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