Symbolic Reasons Why Judges Break Their Pens After Giving Death Sentence

By maks in Interesting On 16th April 2024

There are several reasons why judges have traditionally broken their pens after handing down a death sentence.

If you ever find yourself witnessing a judge break their pen right after announcing a death sentence and you're puzzled by what's happening, you're not alone.

Alternatively, you might just be browsing online, perhaps looking for something educational to distract you while you recover from a bit too much fun on a Saturday night.

This custom dates back to between the early 16th and mid-18th centuries, during the era of the Mughal Empire in India.

Some judges take part in a pen-breaking tradition after handing out the death penalty Pexels / KATRIN BOLOVTSOVA

It was initially started by a Mughal Emperor and was later adopted by British judges during the colonial period in India.

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This practice persisted even after India gained independence from the UK.

Judges have specific symbolic reasons for breaking the nib of a pen after signing a death sentence, rather than after any other type of ruling.


According to Subhash Ahlawat, there are three main symbolic reasons for this act.

The first reason is that breaking the pen signifies the gravity of the sentence and reflects the judge's "heavy heart" due to the "immense responsibility and emotional burden associated with deciding someone's fate."

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The second reason is that once the nib is broken off, the pen can no longer write, symbolizing the irrevocability of a death sentence and the fact that the judge cannot simply change their mind.

The third reason is that the broken pen, now useless for its original purpose, highlights how rare and final a death sentence should be.

If a pen has been used to endorse taking a life, it should not be used again.

BNB Legal points out that there is no requirement for judges to break their pens after issuing a death sentence—it remains a tradition that some choose to uphold.

There are three main symbolic reasons behind the practice Pexels / KATRIN BOLOVTSOVA

It's also important to note that the death penalty was abolished in the UK in 1998.


However, as of 2022, Amnesty International reports that 55 countries still maintain the death penalty.

In these countries, many judges continue to participate in the pen-breaking tradition, although many people may be unfamiliar with it.

And it seems I'm not the only one learning about this for the first time.

One X user shared, "I'm hearing this for the first time."

"I wasn't aware of this but I have been educated," another commented.

A third remarked, "Am just hearing it for the first time."

And a fourth simply said, "Interesting."