Language Barriers

Haryana makes Hindi the official language in subordinate courts igniting debate about issues of accessibility.

Earlier this year, the State of Haryana amended the Haryana Official Language Act, 1969 so as to make Hindi the official language in its subordinate courts. Even though the amendment only applies to the lower courts, it has reignited the debate around what language(s) should be used in the Indian higher judiciary. The Supreme Court and most High Courts operate exclusively in English, making them incomprehensible to vast sections of citizens.

Haryana Amendment – issues of accessibility

While the official language debate is often framed in terms of national/state identity, in the context of courts, the primary issue is accessibility. As Haryana Chief Minister Manohar Lal Khattar explains, making Hindi the official language in lower courts serves to democratize the courts, allowing more litigants to understand proceedings. In Haryana, a majority of the population does not understand English, resulting in a situation where the courts are completely alien to a majority of citizens.

Interestingly, the advocates opposing the Haryana Amendment have also grounded their arguments in accessibility. They say that advocates are used to using English during court proceedings and that proficiency in quotidian Hindi, doesn’t translate to proficiency in court. Making Hindi the official language will make the courts less accessible to many advocates, they contend.

Hence, they filed a petition in the Supreme Court challenging the Amendment under Articles 14 and 19(1)(g) of the Constitution. According to them, the Amendment creates an unreasonable classification between advocates fluent in Hindi and those who are not. Further, they say it restricts their right to freely profess trade.

The dispute is now before the Punjab and Haryana High Court, as the Supreme Court asked the petitioners to first approach the High Court. On Monday, June 22nd, the High Court issued notice.

Image: ‘Capitol High Court’ by Sanyam Bahga licensed under Creative Commons

Which language(s) are used in the Supreme Court?

As specified in Article 348 of the Constitution, the Supreme Court uses English in all proceedings. Until Parliament introduces a law specifying that another language should be used, this will continue to be the case for the foreseeable future.

Despite being committed to the use of English, the Supreme Court has expressed concern about the fact that its proceedings are less accessible to non-English speakers. At the end of the day, it derives much of its popular legitimacy from the idea that anyone can approach it to seek relief. As scholar Nick Robinson puts it, ‘The idea that anyone who has had their constitutional right violated–from the poorest villager in the tribal areas of Jharkhand to the wealthiest businessman in a high rise in Bombay–can appear before a panel of the Supreme Court to have their case heard has deep democratic resonance’.

Therefore, the Court has taken steps to bridge this language barrier. In its 2018-19 Annual Report, it declared its commitment to translating judgments into the vernacular languages of litigants. In particular, it identified 14 types of cases which commonly have litigants in the ‘lower or middle strata of society’, who may be less ‘well-versed with English language’. These include labour, consumer protection and eviction matters.

As we previously wrote about, this policy has resulted in the Supreme Court translating judgments into a wide range of languages, from Assamese to Telugu. In fact, our analysis shows a rough correlation between how commonly a language is spoken in India and the proportion of judgments translated into that language.  For example, roughly 45% of persons surveyed in the 2011 Census of India reported Hindi as their mother tongue. Paralleling this, 49% of all translated Supreme Court judgments are in Hindi. Due to the wide-prevalence of Hindi, it sees by far the most translations, with second-place Tamil only coming in at 26%.

The next step for the Supreme Court is to scale up its translation services. As of now, it has only translated a few hundred judgments. To put this in context, the Court delivers thousands of judgments each year. The solution appears to lie in technology. The Court has been developing in-house Artificial Intelligence (AI) software for the past year, which could allow it to translate a higher number of judgments. The Print reports that the AI software is almost ready for use.

If the AI software is a success, we may see the higher judiciary adopt similar technologies for a wide range of use-cases, beyond just judgment translation. Even though developing in-house translation software is expensive, the courts may view it as worth the cost, given that it is likely to make them much more accessible. We’ll have to first wait and see how the judgment translation software is received.