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Courtrooms, Cafeterias, and Clothes: Contempt and Obedience Procedure of the Court

Brightly coloured strips of light criss-cross the screen
Photo by JJ Ying on Unsplash.

Recently, a law student was admonished for drinking water while seated in a courtroom. This occurred in the Madhya Pradesh High Court, located in central India. The student had visited the court for the first time, and it was the first day of his legal internship. The judge remarked that his courtroom was not a cafeteria and asked the student to reveal his identity and law school name in open court. Across the country, on its eastern border, a judge in the Gauhati High Court refused to give audience to a male advocate appearing before the court wearing jeans. As per the Bar Council of India Rules, male advocates appearing before a court shall wear a black coat (options of Indian traditional wear are also provided), white shirt, white collar along with a white band and the black advocate’s gown. The Rules exclude a reference to jeans. The judge reasoned that, ‘…it is within the domain of every presiding judicial officer, including the Judge of this Court, to uphold adherence to the advocate’s dress code within the Court…’ Stories of such disciplining are multiple and a common headline of legal news updates. This blog post considers what behaviour is said by judges to lower the dignity of the court and challenge its authority.

This regulation of the minutiae of the everyday world of the court is authorised in legislation. The Contempt of Courts Act, 1971, s. 2 (c) defines contempt as any act whatsoever that, ‘…scandalises or tends to scandalise, or lowers or tends to lower the authority of, any court…’ (emphasis added). Therefore, it is at the discretion of the judge presiding over their court to decide what scandalises or lowers the authority of their courtroom. The penalties for doing so are significant. Section 12 of the Act states that contempt may be punished with imprisonment for up to six months, or fines, or both. While this provision exists, the more commonly utilised option for dealing with contempt is the mode used in the first example – by apologising to the court, if this apology is made to the satisfaction of the Court. In most instances, judges accept an apology for the sort of contempt cases discussed here but the question of whether drinking water is capable of scandalising anyone or poses a threat to decorum remains.

While conducting fieldwork in the Bombay High Court, I observed that interpretation of what scandalises the court can be broad. People in court were threatened with contempt when found carrying non-law books, reading a newspaper, using a noisy plastic bag, carrying backpacks, and sitting with one leg crossing over the other. In other instances, law students were reprimanded in open court because they were not wearing ties (there are no rules prescribing dress codes for students). In a UK context, Peter Goodrich has described instances like those discussed above in which observers have been punished for contempt for laughing in court. These instances speak to a larger debate on how contempt is used by judges as a tool to maintain hierarchies and control by disciplining participants or to control how the courts are viewed and revered.

Why are judges so sensitive to such behaviour? Linda Mulcahy has argued that the positioning of people in courtrooms reflect longstanding battles about courtroom hierarchy meaning that the court is far from being a neutral space. My observation – that the use of contempt arbitrarily and frequently – suggests that the disciplining of individuals takes other forms. The courtroom then becomes a contested space, one in which the threat of contempt limits access to justice instead of furthering it. It is argued that contempt, in its current form, is unchecked. The neutrality of the courtroom space is compromised when ‘obedience procedure’ comes to the fore.

About the Author

Headshot of Dr. Rahela Khorakiwala

Dr. Rahela Khorakiwala

Assistant Professor, BITS Law School, Mumbai

Rahela Khorakiwala is a lawyer by training, having studied in Mumbai, New York, New Delhi, and Frankfurt. She is currently an Assistant Professor at BITS Law School, Mumbai. Her first book is a Socio-Legal study of the colonial courts of India.

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