Its presence outside the chamber indicates the judge is in

Name boards outside individual chambers of the Madras High Court Bench judges here do not have a provision to indicate whether a particular judge is in or out. And the only way to ascertain their presence is to look for the mace, a silver club used traditionally as a symbol of authority by men and women holding high office.

A mace resting on the wall adjacent to the chamber entrance indicates that the judge is in, and its absence means that he/she is not, in the chambers.

Maces go back in time. There are references both in Indian as well as western history of people having used maces as weapons or as symbols of power and supremacy.

Unlike traditional accounts of kings wielding the maces while delivering judgements and handing them over to their successors as a mark of transfer of rule, the High Court judges do not even touch the maces. What is in vogue today is the colonial practice of the judges being preceded by macebearers walking a few feet ahead to ensure that the dignitaries get due respect and an unobstructed pathway.

An eminent jurist, preferring anonymity, said that the Madras High Court retained the practice even after Independence especially because the judges’ chambers in the Principal Seat of the High Court were located away from the court halls. The judges had to walk through public corridors and hence there arose a necessity for maces and their bearers.

However, the Madurai Bench, built on the lines of the Supreme Court model, was constructed in a way that the chambers were located right behind every court hall. It made things easy for the judges as they could climb the dais in the court halls directly through a doorway from their chambers without having to walk through public corridors.

The Madurai Bench was also equipped with an exclusive corridor, entrance and exit for the judges at the rear of the court buildings. Nevertheless, many judges continue to use mace bearers while commuting the distance from the rear portico to their chambers and also when they attend court-organised functions.

The mace bearers are also used as part of the customary practice of a junior judge walking down to the chambers of the senior before both enter the latter’s court hall for constituting a Division Bench in which, legally, both are considered equals and expected to apply their mind independently without any consideration of one being junior to the other.

The use of maces has a chequered history. One of the charges levelled against former Supreme Court judge V. Ramaswami, an old student of a private college in Madurai and the first judge to be subjected to impeachment proceedings after Independence, was that he had purchased 25 silver maces during his tenure as the Chief Justice of the Punjab and Haryana High Court between 1987 and 1989 despite stiff opposition from other judges who considered it to be a wasteful expenditure.

The concept of maces was unknown to the Punjab and Haryana High Court until Justice Ramaswami was elevated as its Chief Justice from the Madras High Court.

Though many other High Courts in the country do not follow the practice of judges being preceded by mace bearers, the Madras High Court as well as its Madurai Bench have successfully perpetuated the tradition even into the 21st century.

Purely ceremonial in England

The maces used currently at the Madras High Court Bench in Madurai are roughly four feet tall with a diameter of 12 inches at the top. The width of the stalk gradually decreases to 6 inches at the bottom. The bearers hold the maces at waist level on the right side.

Though some of the old maces were made of solid silver, they were later replaced with wooden maces covered with silver plates.

The maces that were made recently are hollow and hence lighter.

The maces do not have uniformity in the patterns embossed on them and the designs differ from mace to mace.

The mace bearers follow a dress code which consists of white shirts and trousers with broad red belts highlighted with yellow horizontal stripes.

They also wear a red turban with the national emblem in the front. Whether to use a mace bearer or not is completely left to the discretion of individual judges. Some judges avoid using the mace, considering it to be an expendable practice relegated to ceremonial functions even in England.

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