Language matters. And especially in a discipline as precise as the law, it matters even more. It influences attitudes, encapsulates social mores on sensitive issues, and serves as an important signal to the authorities. This is why the Supreme Court’s initiative to draft a handbook illustrating words perpetuating gender stereotypes that should be avoided in court is significant. Though among the more progressive institutions in India, the judiciary, especially lower courts, do sometimes end up perpetuating stereotypes — whether it be notions about live-in relationships or interfaith unions, sexual crimes against women or love that transgresses genders and sexualities. Worse still, the language used by the courts acts as a marker of sorts for the police and the legal establishment, where biases are rampant anyway and routinely impede access to justice for vulnerable communities. For example, it took several nudges from the courts for the outdated two-finger test to be phased out. And it took landmark judgments for the police to take the complaints of same-sex couples seriously. Thus, it is important for the courts to be the vanguard, to help fill gaps in the criminal justice system.
It’s not only a question of being politically correct. Attitudes held by lawyers and judges — for example, on how rape victims should behave, whether transgender people need protections, and what ideal mothers should be like — can have a very real impact on the lives of litigants. If the manual can remove some barriers to the access to justice and help marginalised communities become more comfortable in approaching the authorities in seeking redressal, it would have done its job.