T&T judge: Nehru suit was appropriate for court

(Trinidad Guardian) The Nehru suit worn by Senior Counsel Israel Khan in the Port-of-Spain Magistrates’ Court in 2005 was befitting for the dignity of the magistrates’ court. This was the ruling of the Court of Appeal on October 4, 2011 which quashed the decision of then Chief Magistrate Sherman Mc Nicholls, who on January 21, 2005, refused to allow Khan to address the court because he wore a Nehru suit. Following is an edited part of the judgment delivered by Justice Peter Jamadar.

The first point which needs to be stated is that this decision of the Chief Magistrate was properly reviewable. It involved an obvious public element—a decision affecting the right of audience of an attorney-at-law before a public court. It also concerned the right of a person, who has a matter or whose interests can be affected in proceedings before the court, to be represented by counsel of his/her choice (which in the context of the rule of law, raises issues of fundamental fairness and concerning the audi alteram partem principle) . And in both circumstances, whether and if so when the rights in question can be suspended or lost by reason of the attire worn by an attorney-at-law. This case therefore raised serious questions of importance in relation to personal rights and the general administration of justice in Trinidad and Tobago. The Chief Magistrate explained the reasons for his decision of the 21st January, 2005 and his insistence on it thereafter twice. First in his written response to Mr. Khan dated the 2nd February, 2005 (quoted above), and second in his affidavit filed in these proceedings on the 2nd November, 2005, as follows:

It is an unwritten convention in the magistrates’ court that male attorneys suit themselves in jacket and tie. 30. It is therefore quite incorrect to assert that there has been some strict adherence to a “traditional jacket and tie” mode of dress in the Magistrate’s Court, whatever ‘traditional’ may mean! Certainly it has not meant uniformity. There has quite simply never been any specific agreed mode of dress for men in the Magistrate’s court. However, if there has been one consistent, underpinning value and tradition, which one may truly deem an enduring and accepted convention, it was and is, that the attire worn in the Magistrate’s Court would always “befit the dignity of the Court”. Clearly the Nehru suit worn by Mr. Khan on the 21st January, 2005 was a suit in all respects.

Trinidad and Tobago is no longer a British Colony, nor even an Independent Nation with the British Monarch as Head of State, but a Republic! What befits the dignity of a Trinidad and Tobago Court must be considered in this context and in the further context of the legitimate assimilation (and re-appropriation) and expression of authentic indigenous cultural identities and meaning, freely assumed, and which are no longer shackled to British colonial and imperialist norms in acts of masked mimicry.

Traditions may change, but standards and values can remain constant. Mr. Khan’s Nehru suit is such an example. Though not the “traditional jacket and tie,” it is nevertheless respectful of the honour and dignity that is due to a Trinidad and Tobago Magistrates’ Court. Indeed, one may say it was in every respect like the saris and the hijabs worn in the Courts of Trinidad and Tobago, culturally decorous in relation to court appearance and attire.

In my opinion no reasonable person, exercising the power and discretion that the Chief Magistrate had to regulate proceedings in his court, would have concluded that the Nehru suit worn by Mr. Khan on the 21st January, 2005 either lowered the standard of the Court or was not befitting the dignity of the Court.

The exercise of the chief magistrate’s discretion and power to deny Mr. Khan the right of audience was therefore unreasonable and improper. Moreover, the exercise of the discretion was flawed because it failed to consider the circumstances that I have outlined. For these reasons I agreed with my fellow judges (Mendonca, J.A. and Narine, J.A.) on the 4th November, 2011, that the Nehru suit worn by Mr. Khan on the 21st January, 2005, in the colour and tailored as it was, is befitting the dignity of the magistrate’s court, and therefore quashed the impugned decision of the chief magistrate made on the 21st January, 2005.

I also agreed that the “proper authorities” should forthwith take the necessary steps to prescribe or agree for all attorneys-at-law the appropriate attire for wear in the magistrates’ court, as has been done in the past for the High Court. In this way unnecessary confusion and disagreement (and what some persons fear and have named “a descent into chaos’) can be avoided and the true business of the Courts can be dealt with without unnecessary distractions. Indeed, this is the only responsible way forward.


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