These were the words of a Magistrate, addressed to an Attorney who had walked into the courtroom wearing a yellow tie. One may wonder whether it was in order for the Learned Magistrate to impose sartorial standards when the court business was cluttered with formal matters. But he may have a point in trying to ensure that the decorum in his court should be maintained by a good enough standard kept by members of the legal profession. The famous character of John Mortimer, Rumpole of the Old Bailey, may have had the appropriate reaction when he was told by Mr Justice Prestcold that his collar stud was visible: “What was this, a murder trial or a bloody fashion parade?” On the 6 April 1868, a petition signed by several Mauritians of Indian origin was presented to the Governor of the colony, Sir Henry Barkly. The petitioners stated that they felt aggrieved by the attitude adopted by certain Magistrates in requiring all natives of India, when appearing before their Courts, to remove their turbans, hats, shoes or sandals. They added that it had been ruled by the Governor General of India that in the event of a native appearing in court in European attire, the removal of the shoes or the turban should not be required.
Following the petition, a circular was sent on the 20 May of the same year to District and Stipendary Magistrates stating inter-alia that “(1) The headgear may in all cases be retained upon the head, unless it be a hat or cap of European fashion in which case it must be removed upon entering the court. (2) Shoes or hats of European fashion worn with stockings need not be removed. (3) With the above exception, shoes and slippers shall be invariably removed upon entering the court.”
On the 3rd of April, following a correspondence from the Secretary to the Government of India, the Governor of Mauritius considered that as the matter in the Colony of Mauritius was on the same footing as in India, it might be allowed to drop the rule that shoes could only be retained in courts if they were worn with stockings. It appears that this decision was not translated into rules.
On the 9 June 1908, one CM Atchia was a witness before the District Magistrate H. Hewetson Esq. He was dressed in Oriental fashion and wearing shoes without socks or stockings. As soon as he stepped into the witness box, and before taking the oath, he was rebuked by the Magistrate and asked to remove his shoes. He was told to remove his shoes unless he wished to be treated as European or Creole, in which case he would have to remove his turban. He protested and declined to follow the order of the Magistrate. He was found guilty for contempt for having refused, in the face of the court, to obey the order of the Magistrate. He was sentenced to three days’ imprisonment or to pay a fine of Rs 40. Mr Atchia appealed and was represented by Manilal Doctor Bar-at-law.
Counsel Manilal Doctor raised before Brown and Thibaud. J. J. the following issues, namely:
- That his client was not required or ordered to take off his shoes but simply requested to do so. There was therefore no refusal to obey an order.
- The retention of shoes was not in itself an act of disrespect; every day Orientals appeared before the Supreme Court with Oriental headgear and shoes, European or Oriental. They were never requested to remove either, nor was their retention looked down upon as a sign of disrespect.
- The Magistrate himself did not look upon retention of shoes and headgear as a mark of disrespect to the Court, for though the instructions were in all cases to require the removal of shoes when worn without socks or stockings on entering the Court, he merely required their removal pending the administering of solemn affirmation. He erroneously looked upon such removal as part of the necessary ceremonial for being solemnly affirmed.
The appeal was dismissed on the grounds that there was clear evidence that Mr Atchia had flouted an order of the Court. The appellate court concluded that the appellant’s refusal to comply with the order, his arrogant attitude and his obstinacy constituted a rude and contumelious behavior and the sentence amply justified.
There are many mysteries of the legal universe. Today it is perfectly acceptable for a witness of any faith or ethnicity to wear a turban or for one who is a Rastafarian his tam, in court. Luckily for our Magistrates and Judges they do not have to wear a wig!
* Published in print edition on 27 August 2010
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