Fellow lawyers, outside the Courtroom lose the band and gown

Advocates outside the Supreme Court of India dressed in gowns and bands.
(Image Credits – BQ Prime)

In a previous post, I had discussed the rising trend of young judicial magistrates having an influential online presence via social media. I had argued that although the lack of regulations allows Judges to be on social media, the Judicial Code of Conduct indicates that they are expected to maintain a degree of aloofness and not engage in any activities that may be unbecoming of their judicial office. The post had received positive feedback and some of the readers had sent queries asking whether similar standards apply to the Bar.

The rise of social media has not escaped lawyers, and just like celebrity judges there also exist celebrity lawyers who don their band and gown and have accumulated a considerable amount of fan following on social media. Many of these lawyers give a sneak peek to their lives in the courtrooms which often attracts eyeballs. The others make videos explaining the law or comment on ongoing cases or give media interviews. In all fairness, I must concede, that as a lawyer I myself am active on social media and often share my opinion on ongoing legal-political developments. In fact, I am in favour of lawyers using their knowledge of the law to educate citizens through insightful legal writing or informational videos.

However, lawyers while making appearances on social media or outside courtrooms often forget a cardinal rule that we lawyers are forbidden by law to wear the band or gown in public places. In this post, I discuss this cardinal rule and argue that advocates are allowed to wear gowns only while practising their profession, in other words, while appearing before the Courts. I also briefly discuss the interesting origins of the band and the gown which have become the symbol of the legal fraternity in India.

The post uses the terminology of gowns in place of robes since this term is used in the Bar Council Regulations. Further, the word advocate is used for uniformity in place of lawyers and barristers.

A. History of Gowns and Bands: Sovereign Authority and Equality

Our legal profession much like our law has deep colonial roots. Amongst other things this is evident from the way we submit our pleadings to the Court, appear before the Courts and address the Judges. I want to focus on the appearance of lawyers here.

The legal profession is often symbolised through the black gowns and white bands worn by practising lawyers (hereinafter referred to as ‘advocates’) and Judges.  The gowns are a relic of our erstwhile colonial masters. As per Rob McQueen, Judges in England were considered as direct servants of the sovereign King/Queen and hence, were given special clothing as his/her legal representative to be worn while exercising royal prerogative. Another argument for a special clothing was the need to provide dignity to the law. It was believed that a special costume could provide the effect of a detached dignity which no other uniform could.

Picture illustrating the dress worn by advocates. The white garment around the neck is the band and the black garment over the shirt is the robe.

To this effect in the 16th century, a legislation was passed regulating the dress code in the courtrooms. The legislation obligated the Bar and the Bench to wear gowns of ‘sad colour’. Interestingly, black was not a ‘sad colour’, and colours like green in summer, violet in winter and red on special occasions were worn by advocates and judges. It is believed that the switch to black gowns happened following the death of King Charles-II in 1685. The Bar and Bench went into a period of mourning wearing black gowns and there started a tradition which has become the norm today. Another story states that the practice of wearing wigs amongst judges and lawyers emanated during the death of Queen Anne. McQueen writes, ‘the bar went into mourning at the death of Queen Anne and never came out again.’ Death of monarchs clearly has had an impact on the dress code of legal professionals.

The legislation also contained prohibitions on certain types of attires including foreign fashions, coloured doublets, hats, cloaks, boots and also beards, and long hair. However, these prohibitions were not strictly enforced so long as the advocate wore the robe, since the purpose of the gowns was to make clothing underneath irrelevant. This was specifically aimed at masking the inequality faced by poorer advocates who could not afford good clothing. In Advocates Oxford Pannick writes that the poorer advocates were put on an equal footing with their better off colleagues when they donned their gowns. It is believed that in the 19th century many advocates robed themselves over their underwear, since they often lost their clothing in a game of wager.

However, at the end of the 19th century the Bar and Bench started enforcing the legislation and the rules strictly. As per Pannick, “they begun to take an almost obsessive interest in what barristers wore under their robes”. It is believed that a Magistrate refused to listen to an advocate who wore brown shoes. The magistrate is said to have remarked, ‘your footwear is more suitable at the golf course than for a court of law’.  The strictness in dress code has continued since then.

Bands or jabot is worn around an advocate’s neck. It is believed that this practice arose during the 1640s, when advocates gave up the practice of wearing a neck ruff in favour of a band to conceal the collar of their shirt. The jabot slowly became the norm. It consists of two rectangles which are considered to represent the tablets of Moses in the Old Testament. Both these attires were brought to India by the British.

Interestingly, when India attained independence, within a few days on 27 August 1947, a letter to the editor published in the Times of India argued for replacing the existing dress and uniform of advocates in India with something more suitable to Indian conditions. It read,

With the independence of India from foreign domination, I suppose there will be a gradual change in our mode of dress and costume may I suggest that the advocate’s professional dress and robes be replaced by some dress better suited to Indian conditions? The gown and collar and bands should be dispensed with, and all advocates should wear a black long coat with the closed collar.”

This demand was replicated in the year 1965 by the Bar Councils of Delhi and Maharashtra, however, advocates continued with the colonial dress code. At present, advocates are obligated to wear the white bands in all Courts and the gowns in the Supreme Court and High Courts. Often, the High Courts dispense with the requirement of wearing gowns in summers. However, no such relaxation is granted in the Supreme Court.

The debate over the dress code of lawyers has continued for years. Recently the Bar Council of India has constituted a committee to look into this demand.

B. Gowns and Bands only in Court:

Coming to the use of bands or gowns in public. Rule 7 of Chapter II of the Rules of Professional Standard framed by the Bar Council of India states that an advocate should not wear bands or gowns in public places other than in Courts. The Rule contains an exception for occasions and places prescribed by the Court or the Bar Council of India where they may be worn, in addition to the Court. While researching for this post, I was unable to find any exceptions carved by the Court or the Bar Council of India where gowns or bands could be worn, in addition to the Court.

The rule reads,

“An advocate should not wear bands or gowns in public places other than in courts, except on such ceremonial occasions and at such places as the Bar Council of India or as the court may prescribe.”

The Courts have consistently maintained that advocates are supposed to wear their gowns and bands only during the exercise of their profession, which means only when they appear before the Courts. In R. Muthukrishnan v. Union of India, an advocate had filed a Public Interest Litigation as a petitioner before the Madras High Court and wanted to appear in his case wearing a band and gown. He argued that he was an enrolled advocate and hence, was duty bound to wear a band and gown while appearing before the Court. The Court held that when an advocate appears as a litigant before the Court, he does not exercise his right to practice throughout the territory of India, which is enshrined under Section 30 of the Advocates Act. The Court further held that practice here means ‘exercise of profession’ and when an advocate appears as a litigant, he does not exercise his profession and hence, cannot wear a band and gown.

The Court reached a similar conclusion in T.Venkanna vs. The Hon’ble High Court of Mysore and MCS Barna v. CB Ramamurthy. In Barna, the Court reiterated that an advocate could wear his gown and band only when he is practising his profession. Interestingly, this practice of strict adherence to wearing a band and robe, goes back to colonial days. It is believed that the Chief Justice of Allahabad High Court Sir John Edge was once hearing a case for withdrawal of winding up proceedings from the District Court to the High Court. One Mr. Quarry was the Official Liquidator and appeared in person to oppose the petition. Mr. Quarry was dressed in robes and began to address the Court from the advocate’s table (the table from which ordinarily advocates addressed the Court). Chief Justice Edge is believed to have remarked that in future whenever an advocate appears as a litigant in person before the Court, he must not address the Court in robes and from the advocates’ table. These remarks from Chief Justice Edge are considered to have started this practice which is the law today.

In light of the law discussed above, it is clear that advocates can only wear a robe and band while appearing in court rooms and nowhere else. Therefore, if an advocate gives an interview to the media or appears on social media in this attire, s/he is violating the law. This conclusion is also supported from the Bombay High Court’s observations in Jan Adalat v. State of Maharashtra, wherein the Court in an obiter dicta remarked that members of the Bar while visiting their clients in prisons must remove their bands and gowns during such meetings, since a failure to do so would violate the rules of professional ethics governing advocates. The relevant observations read, “Moreover, the Rules of professional ethics governing the Advocates require that the bands and gowns should be worn only in the Court premises.”

Social media as a medium has both positives and negatives. Lawyers while utilising this platform or making public appearances must be cautious that their actions don’t attract the wrath of the Bar Council for an alleged breach of professional ethics.

In this post, I have relied extensively on the following articles:

  1. Imagining the Post-Colonial Lawyer: Legal Elites and the Indian Nation-State, 1947-1967 by Alexander Williams
  2. Of Wigs and Gowns: A Short History of Legal and Judicial Dress in Australia by Rob McQueen

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