The Bench five district court verdict on the Dasho Benji case created a stir not only for the case verdict and directions to investigate sedition charges, but also its assertion that Dzongkha is not the court language.
The verdict in its ‘Court Findings’ section, justifying why it accepted the submissions in English and is giving the verdict in English, asserted that the common view that Dzongkha is the court language is not only misconceived and wrong but also against the principles of fair trial.
The district court also said that the inability of a litigant to understand the language used in court can create significant barriers to justice. The court said that there is no law saying that Dzongkha is the court language.
The district court findings mentioned a 3rd February 2016 notification from the Supreme Court requiring courts to only accept submissions in Dzongkha.
This notification, will put to stop, a fairly widespread practice of courts at all levels accepting submissions in English and also issuing judgments in the same language.
Now the Supreme Court despite the district court verdict and arguments has said that Dzongkha is the court language and will remain so. A senior official of the Supreme Court who declined to be named said that the Supreme Court is not bringing in a new rule as traditionally Dzongkha has always been the court language.
The issue of Dzongkha versus English according to the Supreme Court cropped up in the Tashi Inheritance case where it noticed that all submissions were done in English and also judgments were rendered in the same language in the lower courts.
The Supreme Court said that it was not promoting Dzongkha but only ensuring continuity. The senior official pointed out that all Acts and laws in the country have a provision in them saying that in case of any clash between the English and Dzongkha texts of the language the Dzongkha text will be considered authoritative.
The official said when it came to the Constitution Article 35 says, that in any instance of a difference in meaning between the Dzongkha and the English texts of the Constitution, each text shall be regarded as equally authoritative and courts shall reconcile the two texts.
However, the Supreme Court at the same time also put forward certain clarifications on the Dzongkha submissions issue.
It said that while all submissions and verdicts will have to be in Dzongkha, the litigants, along with the Dzongkha submission can also submit an additional English version for better clarity if they want to do so.
The litigants, if not well versed in Dzongkha can make their verbal arguments in the language of their choice, as long as the formal written submission is in Dzongkha.
The senior official said that if they cannot write in the language then they can always hire people to do so and also get them to translate the documents. He said the Judge reads out written submissions and verdicts to make sure litigants understood them and that there was similarity in what they submitted in written form and what they spoke.
The senior official said that Bhutan has never been a British colony and Dzongkha has always been used in the courts and so it did not make sense to give pre-eminence to English.
The official also pointed out that both lawyers and judges in Bhutan are not exactly very proficient in English as well with grammatical errors.
The official said that if English is allowed then it would not make sense to train aspiring Drangpons in the two year compulsory Post Graduate Degree in National Law (PGDNL) for LLB lawyers getting their certificates from outside Bhutan.
The course has advanced Dzongkha studies as an important component. He said that court clerks were also all trained in Dzongkha and doing everything in English would make them redundant.