The defamation case between DPT and Dasho Paljor J Dorji, popularly known as Dasho Benji, set a landmark precedent. The judgment raised an important legal issue on the language of the courts.
If there is one principle that is fundamental to a fair trial and justice, it is language, as it is through the use of language that people perceive the trial and judgment to be fair.
The usage of languages before the courts remained ambiguous for a long time. While some courts accepted submissions in English, some refused, creating misunderstandings amongst litigants, lawyers and even judges. While litigants reasoned out their right to submit in English, judges refused citing Dzongkha as the court language. Judges, therefore, stated that court proceedings have to be in the language of the court.
In the past, numerous court hearings were conducted and judgments also handed out in English. One such example is the Supreme Court verdict on the tax case between the former opposition leader and former government.
The ambiguity, however, was clarified when the Supreme Court issued a notification on February 3, 2016, instructing courts to conduct proceedings in Dzongkha. The notification reasoned that the Constitution mentions Dzongkha as the national language and the court language should be Dzongkha to promote the national language.
But practising lawyers and litigants are questioning the basis of the Supreme Court notification, as no law supports it.
The only law that mentions about court language is the Civil and Criminal Procedure Code of Bhutan, 2001, where its section 187.1 (c) states that charges must be written in the language of the court.
Legal experts also say the notification is subjective since the Dzongkha used in courts is different from the Dzongkha people use in their daily lives.
While it is the responsibility of every Bhutanese to have good command over Dzongkha, we must not also forget that the words and terms used in court is different from the Dzongkha that is used by common people.
Let us not forget that using Dzongkha as the court language has huge cost implications, as people embroiled in the cases, have to use the services of interpreters and translators.
They also justify that by not accepting submissions in English, our courts are also depriving citizens their fundamental rights of knowing the charges against them. International treaties mandates that it is the right of individuals to be informed of the charges against them in a language they understand or the right to an interpreter if they cannot understand the language used in court.
The recent verdict stated that the court, considering the right of the parties to have court hearings in the language the parties understand, accepted the request made by Dasho Benji’s lawyer. The court accepted the submission in English and also rendered the judgment in the language the parties preferred.
It is a must that language should be an aid to justice and public interest. It is therefore a must for the High Court and Supreme Court to declare the treatment of English as a second language of the courts.
Justice must not only be done, it must appear to be done and in doing so, accepting the language litigants understand is required.