The courthouse holds a special place in our society. We rely on the court system to resolve our disputes.
Whether it is a dispute with a person, company, or the government, we look to independent and impartial judges in the court system to settle our disagreements. Judges hear from all of the parties involved and then decide what is just and what is fair.
Their decisions can have a profound impact on the lives of those involved in a case. But the impact can be much broader. We all look to the court system to make those wide-reaching decisions that promote justice overall. For that to happen, everyone relying on the court system needs to be treated equally.
This brings me to some important announcements made this week: the B.C. Provincial Court and B.C. Supreme Court both announced protocol for speaking in court. Now everyone is asked to introduce themselves to the court—not only by name but by pronouns and preferred titles. Gender-neutral titles such as Mx. and Counsel may be used.
In other words, the introduction is no longer, “My name is Kevin Yee, last name spelled Y-E-E. I am the lawyer for the plaintiff.” Now people are asked to state what gendered pronouns they identify with. Introductions can include something like, “My name is Kevin Yee. I use the pronouns he/his and the title Mr.”
For some people, these announcements do not seem like big news. For others, it is huge. This new protocol means that the courts can better acknowledge people based on how they identify.
This makes for a more respectful and open environment. It makes our courts more inclusive and embraces diversity. In her announcement, the chief judge of the B.C. Provincial Court, Melissa Gillespie, explained that introducing this measure is meant to improve the experiences within the legal system for gender-diverse parties and to avoid uncomfortable tension.
By introducing pronouns in court, judges won’t need to make assumptions about gender and identity. Those assumptions—based on how someone looks, how someone sounds, or how someone’s name appears—can be wrong. When pronouns are used that are inconsistent with a person’s identity, it can inflict harm. Even if there are no bad intentions, misgendering a person can leave them feeling disrespected, dismissed, or alienated.
Maybe this seems like a lot of attention over what is the use of just a few words. But words matter. This is especially the case in a courtroom, where judgments can turn on a few words.
Taking these very small steps to ensure people are addressed respectfully can go a long way toward improving the experiences of people accessing the court system. After all, speaking in a courtroom can be a nerve-racking experience. For self-represented litigants, junior lawyers, or even the senior ones who haven’t gone to court for years, the courtroom is a high-stress environment. There really is no need for people to have the added anxiety over how they will be gendered by the courts.
We look to the court system as a bastion of justice. It is fitting, then, that the court system takes steps to ensure that everyone is treated in a respectful and dignified way. This week’s announcements send a message: that the courts are for everyone. All people—lawyers, litigants, and witnesses—will be respected in their pursuit of justice.
A word of caution: You should not act or rely on the information provided in this column. It is not legal advice. To ensure your interests are protected, retain or consult a lawyer.