Every now and then, judges remind us that they too have a funny bone. The fact that humour can find its way into even the official proceedings of a court can perhaps be held the beginning of its ultimate conquest.
So, last month, a man approached the court challenging his arrest, ostensibly made to prevent his committing a crime in the foreseeable future. The police had a watertight case against the man, the most striking evidence being that he was drinking tea in a ‘suspicious’ manner. And there was no ‘satisfactory explanation’ for this action.
In a rare instance of delicate sarcasm in court judgments, the order read: “We were unaware that the law required anyone to give an explanation for having tea, whether in the morning, noon or night. One may take tea in a variety of ways, not all of them elegant or delicate, some of them perhaps even noisy. But we know of no way to drink tea ‘suspiciously’.”
Notwithstanding such examples, the default atmosphere in a courtroom is of stoic seriousness. With the amount of paper stacked up there, the atmosphere probably cannot be anything else. If all the papers in all courts of Mumbai were to be stacked up one upon another, there’s a very good chance that the resulting structure would evoke serious objections from the city’s high-rise committee. Needless to say, the objections would face the equally serious risk of inviting contempt of court.
Then, there is that thing called colonial hangover. Both lawyers and judges continue to wear full length black coats or gowns in spite of the punishing heat and humidity because, apparently, black is the only appropriate colour for official decorum. And, of course, the language you hear would leave you trying to decide if it comes from the 19th or 18th century. So, for instance, if you’re a lawyer, you cannot say that you understand the point the judge is making. That would be rude. You are supposed to “appreciate what falls from your Lordship,” — a phrase which could make the listener wonder if you are talking about a judge or a tree.
To be fair, this has also partly to do with the language in which laws have been written in the first place. There's a fascination for using Latin terms, even when English translations make perfect sense. So people do not harbour intentions to commit crimes, the word is mens rea. That is a relatively harmless example of archaic language. It gets more serious when we find that officially there is no such thing as molestation, it has to be modesty which is outraged.
Of course, these colonial relics are not things which by themselves define the entire present judicial system. But they have a symbolic value, and they send out a certain message to the ordinary persons. It tells us that judges are on a pedestal — that they are Lords and Ladyships rather than being part of the population for whom they are supposed to secure justice.
Small changes can help to send out the right message — it really shouldn’t be such a big deal. Why can’t judges simply pull back their own chairs when they enter the courtroom? Why can’t they simply pour water into their own glasses when they feel thirsty? Why can’t they sit on normal chairs rather than chairs which look like thrones? Surely, these are not things which will impede the process of justice in any way. Neither will they reduce respect for the courts. If anything, it will be the reverse.
But I digress. We were talking about the beginning of humour’s ultimate conquest. You might ask what, then, will make the conquest complete. Maybe, it will happen when the law sheds some of its more obsolete baggage and takes a look at its lighter side. The law will certainly break into a smile, and the smile is long overdue.
(The writer email: firstname.lastname@example.org)