Why is justice delivered only in English?

By Harshmeet Singh

In July this year, while answering a PIL, the Gujarat High Court asserted that only English can be used in the proceedings of the High Court. Furthermore, it also said that the litigant of the PIL must submit all the concerned documents in English and speak in English; automatically making anyone without the knowledge of English ineligible to file a PIL in the court! In order to represent yourself in your vernacular language, it said, you need to gain a ‘no objection’ from the other party, implying that before fighting a case against your opponents, you need to take their permission just to present your case. If this doesn’t highlight our affinity towards our colonial past, nothing does.

When the Modi government came to power last year, it pushed for making Hindi the official language in a number of central ministries. So when a lawyer named Shiv Sagar Tiwari filed a PIL in the Supreme Court, urging it to put an ‘end to British legacy’, everyone expected the government to take his cause further. But much to the surprise of everyone, the Government blew away the idea of making Hindi the official language in country’s higher judiciary.

To defend its position, the government cited a 2008 report from the Law commission which said that “no language should be thrust on any section of the people against their will since it is likely to become counterproductive”. However, what remains unexplained is how English serves the purpose of being the language of justice.

The present system means that for a law aspirant to reach the highest stage of his career, he must not only be proficient in his law related subjects, but also be equally proficient in English. All the non-English speakers are thus at a disadvantage even before they enter the legal profession. Not only the lawyers, but the common man too is affected by this rule.

A non-English speaker will never comprehend what his lawyers are stating on his behalf in the court. Imagine a person fighting to save your life, by putting forward the arguments that you can’t even comprehend! This doesn’t seem to fit into the idea of justice.

According to the clause (2) of the Article 348 of the Indian constitution, the Governor of a state, after acquiring the President’s consent, may authorize Hindi to be used in the proceedings of the concerned state’s high court. Thus far, only the Governors of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan have made such a provision. Over the years, a number of language activists have demanded the use of vernacular languages in state’s official work, including the judiciary.

The constitution doesn’t prescribe any language for the lower courts in the country. Though a number of district courts hear cases in the local language, they face trouble of a different kind. All the documents related to the case need to be later translated into English since they need to be sent to the High Court, which only admits documents written in English. To avoid this humungous workload, a number of district courts now prefer to take up cases in English.

While any change in the court’s language doesn’t seem to be an imminent agenda for the government, one just hopes that justice isn’t ‘lost in translation’.


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