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Black armour of law

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HARSH KABRA

A petition in the High Court in Kerala seeks a change in the dress code of lawyers – because the black coat, a relic of the Raj, is unsuitable for the sweltering Indian climate.

For Vipul Kundalia, Managing Partner in the Kolkata-headquartered law firm Kundalia and Associates, being an advocate presents an unusual occupational hazard. In the over 15 years that he has been in practice, not a summer has gone by without his skin erupting into rashes. But more than Kolkata's infamous heat and humidity, he feels it's his official attire that is to blame for this.

Wearing a coat during sweltering summers or muggy monsoons may border on the bizarre for us. However, for the more than 1.5 million lawyers in India, the coat, a black one at that, is a professional compulsion, no matter how unkind the weather or the workplace. “The uniform does give a sense of purpose, discipline and responsibility,” says Kundalia. “But it is inappropriate for our climate and calls for a change.”

Just a few days ago, Dr Vincent Panikulangara, a High Court lawyer, filed a petition in the Kerala High Court, seeking a change in the dress code of lawyers on climatic grounds. He noted that in Kerala alone, around 20,000 lawyers practised in non-air-conditioned courts, their woes further exacerbated by erratic power supply.

Widespread opinion

This is exactly what the Pune-based organisation Human Rights and Law Defenders (HRLD) has been pressing for since 2002. A couple of years ago, it carried out a survey of 120 lawyers at Pune's district session 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 per cent said a dress code was necessary, a good 65 per cent also averred that the current one had become more of a status symbol and served no real purpose.

“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,” says Justice V. R. Krishna Iyer, a former judge in the Supreme Court of India and an acclaimed jurist. “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.”

Indeed a relic of the Raj, the sooty robe is believed to have been adopted under a mourning ritual that followed an English monarch's demise. While there are theories that the passing of Queen Mary II (1694) or Queen Anne (1714) was the trigger, historian J.H. Baker attributes it to the death of King Charles II (1685).

Like much of the colonial judicial system, the black outfit has stayed on with us. The Advocates' Act of 1961 mandates male advocates to wear a black buttoned-up coat, chapkan, achkan, sherwani or a black open breast coat, while female lawyers are required to don a black full-sleeve jacket or blouse, paired with sari, pants or salwar kameez. In all instances, a white collar with white bands is a must. Those practising in the High Court and the Supreme Court have to wear the advocate's black gown as well.

“Our findings underline the level of ignorance among the advocates about the ill-effects of the black coat. It is plain impractical in India,” says advocate Asim Sarode, HRLD founder, a socio-legal and human rights activist, and an Ashoka Fellow.

Affirms Ujjwal Nikam, Special Public Prosecutor, Government of Maharashtra, “I wear the black coat even during summers. It gets very uncomfortable in Mumbai.” Kundalia states, “I've seen my peers fall sick because of the heat the black coat absorbs. These black coats cannot be washed everyday. This hinders hygiene.” Advocate Vandana Chavan, ex-mayor of Pune, says, “With a black coat on, I feel like I'm inside an oven.” Kochi-based Kerala High Court advocate K K Preetha says, “Women lawyers in Kerala opt for gowns, but those aren't necessarily any more comfortable.”

“Courts in India work under severe strain. Black coats only worsen the situation,” says Dr. Rajan TD, a Mumbai-based consultant specialist in skin and sexually transmitted diseases. “Even low temperatures clubbed with high humidity levels cause severe discomfort.”

Pune-based Dr Avinash Bhutkar reveals: “The increase in body heat beyond a point lowers the appetite, slows down digestion, and increases dehydration risk. Given their loaded schedule, how many lawyers can ensure regular food habits and adequate water intake to deal with that?”

Interestingly, while a 2001 Bar Council of India circular allows lower court lawyers to dispense with the coat from March 15 to June 15, most lawyers religiously adhere to the dress code throughout the year, although subordinate courts are almost never air-conditioned.

“This refusal to look beyond the status quo stems from the psychological over-dependence of lawyers on the black coat,” says Sarode. When Kundalia tried canvassing a change with his peers at the Kolkata High Court where he works, senior advocates, more than the judges, resisted the idea.

“People who have grown up with the system don't want to think of an alternative because they are unsure of their status in the changed arrangement,” reasons Chandrashekhar Dharmadhikari, former Chief Justice of the Mumbai High Court.

Not all are lucky to have the coat-off option. Gujarat is one of the states that refuse to follow the black coat exemption. So much so that in 2008, Prakash K Jani, a Gujarat High Court advocate moved a Public Interest Litigation in the Gujarat High Court on behalf of the Bar Council of Gujarat seeking this exemption during summers for lawyers of lower courts.

“Not having a dress code can jeopardise the court's dignity,” observes Dharmadhikari. “But it should be in tune with our circumstances and psyche.” A bulk of the suggested change revolves around the adoption of lighter colours, fabrics and designs that aid better air passage, while using badges or ribbons around the neck for identification. “Khadi may have become something only politicians wear, but it can be a worthy alternative in this case,” says Dr Bhutkar.

Not all agree with the need for a change. Dr Adish C Aggarwala, Senior Additional Advocate General of Haryana and Punjab, Supreme Court; President, International Council of Jurists, and Chairman, All India Bar Association, says, “The black coat has become quite Indian. It is wrong to look at it as a Raj hangover.” Dr. V S Malimath, former Chief Justice of the Karnataka and Kerala High Courts, opines, “How Indian are we in our dressing otherwise? Does that make us any less Indian? This is a myopic view.” M Velmurugan, Secretary of the Madras High Court Advocates Association, maintains, “The dress code is integral to the social identity of lawyers.”

More Indian

Yet, veterans like Nikam feel the lawyer community could certainly do better with “a more Indianised dress code”, provided it is implemented throughout the country. Rajjeet Roy, advocate with the Orissa High Court, opines, “It is indeed within our reach to alter the dress code. The Advocates Act itself provides the Bar Council with the power to make a fresh rule, which can be effective once approved by the Chief Justice of India. We should have a minimum dress code that doesn't discriminate between the rich and the poor lawyers.”

According to Sarode, the black coat tends to breed an exaggerated sense of power. “The dress can inspire fear in the minds of people and distance them from the lawyers. This can impede the idea of a people-oriented judiciary,” he says. Change is not impossible. Even in the UK, the country that gave us this dress code, horsehair wigs and frilly gowns meant for judges were replaced some years ago by a more comfortable, popper-fastened gown and seniority-based colour-coded bands on the collar. This is enthusing for votaries of change in India, already basking in the success of a 2006 Bar Council of India resolution throwing out “my lordship” or “my lord” in favour of “your honour”, “honourable court” or just “Sir”.

On its part, HRLD has now written letters to the Union Law Minister, the Chief Justice of India, the Bar Associations and many others, requesting a fresh look at the dress code. For the legal fraternity, it appears, beating the heat may well be about warming up to a change.

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