A mission to decolonize courtroom etiquettes: How to properly address a judge?

“Tareekh pe tareekh, tareekh pe tareekh, tareekh pe tareekh milti gayi My Lord! Par insaaf nahi mila” This famous Sunny Deol dialogue from the film 1993 Damini get gets the hoots and whistles from the audience whenever it is enunciated. Courtroom dramas and movies have always been successful in instilling a sense of justice, the novel quest of being on the right side of the truth and being a dutiful citizen, etc. How close or far away such portrayals is, from the actual profession is a topic up for debate. In this article, I delve into the topic of addressing a judge- a seemingly minuscule courtroom etiquette which has generated quite the discussion in the recent years and how it is connected to the mission of disassociation from out colonial past.

What caused the stir?

In 2019, the Rajasthan High Court in its full court meeting passed a resolution to request counsels and others who appear before the court to refrain from addressing the judges as ‘My Lord’ and ‘Your Lordship’ and suggesting the usage of ‘Sir’ or ‘Srimanji’ instead, to honour the principles of equality enshrined in our constitution[1]. Rajasthan is not the only one with this opinion, Delhi HC judges Justices Ravindra Bhat and S Muralidhar, Calcutta HC’s TBN Radhakrishnan and the bar associations of Krala HC and the Punjab and Haryana HC have also had similar instances of attempting to move away from the usage of ‘Lordship’[2]. Recently still, former Chief Justice of India SA Bobde restarted the discussion regarding the proper terminology to address a judge with, when he objected to a petitioner’s use of ‘Your Honour’ to address the Supreme Court bench headed by him[3]. He reprimanded the petitioner for using ‘incorrect’ terms to address the judges while adding that “we are not particular about what you call us.” Whether Justice Bobde meant to contradict himself or not is a question which only he can answer. However, this line of confusing preferences that have requested and preferred by judges at various periods in time definitely creates confusion for the advocates who obviously do not wish to make a bad impression upon a judge simply because of the use of ‘incorrect’ salutation.

Who decides and what does the rule say?

So what was made of these numerous requests? The Bar Council of India in the year 2006, incorporated Chapter IIIA to part VI of the BCI Rules post the Supreme Court’s observations in the PIL filed by the progressive & Vigilant Lawyers Forum. The PIL demanded the abolition of ‘My Lord’ and ‘Your Lordship’. Indeed, for a long time the usage of the ‘Lord’ to address judges in a courtroom has been discouraged in modern times in an effort to distance from the colonial practices. With the arrival of the English East India Company in the shores of Calcutta, it brought along with it the influence of the English Legal system in India. Upon independence, the Indian Judiciary system, perhaps, burdened by more pressing matters of ensuring justice and law, was not bothered with establishing a ‘new Indian’ courtroom traditions. Therefore, the colonial British rules and etiquette continued to live on, which included the dress code and of course the mode of salutation. The English Courts have continued the usage of ‘Your Lordship’ for higher courts and Sir/Madam for subordinate courts in present day. In India too, advocates based on years of habit and perhaps more focused on winning cases had not given much thought about the appropriate salutation to be used. In the Vigilant Lawyer’s Forum case, the SC had dismissed the petition based on the ground under Section 49(1)(c) of the Advocates Act, 1961 rules on professional and etiquette standards to be observed that it was a matter to be decided by the BCI. The said resolution of the BCI maintained that the respectful attitude was to shown towards the judicial officers. It prescribed the usage of ‘Your Honour’ or ‘Hon’ble Court’ in Supreme Court and High Courts and the usage of ‘Sir’ or the equivalent word in respective languages in the Subordinate Courts. The explanation to this resolution states that the words ‘My Lord’ and ‘Your Lordship’ are considered relics of the colonial past and the above substituted salutation are to be used henceforth for showing respectful attitude to the Court. So, the rule discourages the usage of the word ‘Lord’ and instead prescribes the usage of ‘Your Honour’ as the appropriate salutation. Then why the confusion and why did SA Bobde object to the use of the latter in not one, but two instances in the same year?

Why the confusion continues, SA Bobde’s paradoxical statements and some thoughts

In 2014, Shiv Sagar Tiwari files a writ petition in the Supreme Court seeking a ban on the use of ‘Your Lordship’ as being a “relic of colonial era and a sign of slavery”[4]. Clearly then, the above resolution passed by the BCI condemning the usage of ‘Lordship’ to address judges did not take effect in practice, was ignored largely or never corrected when used wrongly and this is why the confusion still ensues notwithstanding the fact that a mandated BCI answer is already there. New advocates learn from the seniors and if they do not stand corrected, then the freshers in the profession feel obligated to continue in the same path fearing an end to their career if the judge takes offence even before they have started arguing their first case. Likewise, judicial officers just starting out, either are not aware of such changes or expect the same salutations to be continued to use. Mr. Tiwari’s petition presented before Justice H L Dattu and SA Bobde was rejected as a ‘negative prayer’ and heavily criticized it on the grounds that it was never compulsory to use ‘My Lord’. It was stated that a dignified manner of addressing the court was what is to be expected, whether that includes using ‘Your Honour’ or ‘Your Lorship’ is up to the lawyers to choose. In fact, even addressing judges simply by ‘Sir’ is not something that would be looked down upon. Therefore, the question remains why Justice Bobde rejected the usage of ‘Your Honour’ by the petitioner who happened to be a law student. Indeed it might have impacted on the confidence of the budding lawyer. I am of the opinion that if the rules state that ‘Your Honour’ is perfectly acceptable and the prescribed form of salutation then no objection to it shall be taken by reprimanding the advocate. I am also ready to accept that often terms of practice varies from codified rules. In that case then, when sufficient members of the judicial office have made it clear of their preference to be addressed as ‘You Honour’ or just simply ‘Sir’, then that must be followed. In a much broader sense, it really does not matter at the end of the day when the judiciary is entrusted with securing justice on what salutation is used to address a judge as long as mutual respect is present.


[1] Sanjoy Ghose, ‘”Milaard aur membrane jury”: The Your Honour Controversy, (Bar and Bench, 28 Feb 2021) https://www.barandbench.com/columns/milaard-aur-memberane-jury-the-your-honour-controversy accessed 28 December 2021

[2] Mohit Kumar Gupta ‘My Lord, It’s not about ‘Your Honour’!, (TaxGuru 8 November 2021) https://taxguru.in/corporate-law/lord-its-your-honour.html accessed 28 December 2021

[3] ‘Explained : In CJI’s Objection to ‘Your Honour’, a renewed debate on court etiquette’ (The IndianExpress 4 March 2021) https://indianexpress.com/article/explained/explained-in-cji-bobdes-objection-to-you-honour-a-renewed-debate-on-court-etiquette-7202728/ accessed 28 December 2021

[4] See note 2

Aishwarya Says:

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