What is a kangaroo court?

Source: By Rishika Singh: The Indian Express

Chief Justice of India N V Ramana on 23 July 2022 said that “rising number of media trials” are proving to be hurdles towards doing justice, and “kangaroo courts” run by the media are causing harm to the health of the democracy.

“I urge upon the media, particularly the electronic and social media, to behave responsibly,” he said while delivering the inaugural lecture instituted in the memory of Justice Satya Brata Sinha in Ranchi.

He added: “Of late, we see the media running kangaroo courts, at times on issues even experienced judges find difficult to decide. Ill-informed and agenda-driven debates on issues involving justice delivery are proving to be detrimental to the health of democracy.”

Kangaroo court’, a phrase that often makes headlines, was also recently thrown around by former US President Donald Trump who called the 6 January committee hearings into his alleged role in the Capitol Hill riot as a ‘kangaroo court’ inquiry.

In July, while rejecting the bail plea of Ashish Mishra, the prime accused in the Lakhimpur Kheri violence case, Justice Krishan Pahal of the Allahabad High Court had accused the media of running ‘kangaroo courts’.

What is a kangaroo court?

Oxford Dictionary defines it as “an unofficial court held by a group of people in order to try someone regarded, especially without good evidence, as guilty of a crime or misdemeanour”.

In a less literal sense, it is used to refer to proceedings or an activity where a judgement is made in a manner that is unfair, biased, and lacks legitimacy.

When did the usage begin, and why ‘kangaroo’?

The origin of the phrase is not clearly known, but it is believed to have been used from the 19th Century onwards. Why the word ‘kangaroo’ is used is also not clear, but there are several theories.

Some dictionaries say the association with the animal could have a relation to Australians, though the term probably originated in America.

The Collins Dictionary argues that it could be to evoke a sense that “justice progresses by leaps and bounds” in case of kangaroo court verdicts.

There are other historical theories, too. In an article in the Sydney Morning Herald, Roly Sussex, the Emeritus Professor of Applied Language Studies at the University of Queensland, said: “The term popped up first in California, around 1849-1850. At that stage, there were some 800-1,000 Aussie prospectors digging for fortune. Locals soon gleaned that (our forebears) would occasionally decide things in an unofficial kind of way.”

What Sussex is referring to is the Gold Rush, a period in the mid-1800s when massive gold reserves were discovered in and around California in the US. People from all over, including Australia, rushed there and were known as prospectors. Sussex argues these people might have developed their own systems — fair or unfair — of deciding on claims to land where deposits were found.

Another theory relates to both the animal’s peculiar hopping movement, and the historical aspect. Steven Poole, a journalist who writes about language and its usage over time, wrote in The Guardian that the phrase could have been used to describe proceedings in the same era, “often held by mutineers or prisoners”, including “dodgy practices by itinerant judges hopping from one jurisdiction to another”, pointing to a tendency to quickly dispose of cases without a fair trial.