21st Century South Africa’s Lords and Ladies of the courtroom

Sitting in one of South Africa’s High Courts, one could be forgiven for wondering if one had been transported back in time and across the continents on hearing judges being addressed as “My Lord”, “My Lady”, “Your Lordship” and “Your Ladyship”. Are you in a courtroom or a castle, and is the speaker a lawyer or a squire?

These forms of address have their roots in the English institution of the aristocratic “peers of the realm” – one with no relevance whatsoever to 21st century, democratic South Africa. The High Courts’ judges have always been addressed as “My Lord” or “My Lady”, since the days of the Union of South Africa. The Magistrates of the lower courts are addressed as “Your Worship”. The writer has witnessed one layperson address a Magistrate as “Your Majesty”. While this raised a few sniggers in the courtroom, only lawyers immune from long exposure to the strangeness and grandiosity of these forms of address would have reason to laugh. Why is “Your Majesty” absurd but not “Your Worship”?

Some years ago, some of our courts began to move away from such outdated and highly deferential modes of address. The judges of the country’s highest courts, the Supreme Court of Appeal and Constitutional Court, have long preferred to be addressed as “Justice” or “the Court”.

The judges of the Labour Court have long been addressed as “Judge”, but have inexplicably indicated in their April 2013 practice manual that they now insist upon being addressed as “my Lord” or “my Lady”.  One can only assume that either they have come to feel demeaned by a less deferential form of address, or that the different forms of address in courts of the same status have led to such confusion that they have given up on their progressive intentions and resigned themselves to being addressed as if they were English aristocracy.

It goes without saying that a judge’s authority in his or her courtroom must be recognised, and that judges must enjoy respectful treatment. However holding on to outdated, colonial era forms of address seems both unnecessary and undesirable, and will no doubt one day seem as amusingly old-fashioned as the idea of wearing a powdered wig to court.