British courts weigh matter of tradition: wigs or no wigs?

For civil cases, chief justice may drop centuries-old practice

October 07, 2007|By Allison Connolly | Allison Connolly,Sun reporter

For centuries, judges and barristers in the United Kingdom have come to court wearing white horsehair wigs and long black gowns.

King Charles II started the wig trend in England in the 1660s, after admiring the powdered wigs worn in the French court of King Louis XIV. The solid black robe was introduced upon the king's death in 1685.

But centuries of tradition may soon come to an end. The Lord Chief Justice, Lord Phillips of Worth Matravers, is considering dropping the current formal garb for barristers and judges in civil proceedings to make the court more consistent with those around the world.

They may get a new, less formal robe. But it is believed that the curled wig will likely go, as the chief justice himself has already admitted he prefers his own hair to horsehair.

The Bar Council of England and Wales is conducting an official survey of barristers to see what they prefer, and the Lord Chief Justice is to make his final decision sometime afterward, with the new dress code taking effect Jan. 1, 2008.

At this point, the Lord Chief Justice is only considering a new dress code for the civil and family courts; criminal court will remain as is.

A similar wig-or-no-wig survey of Bar Council members conducted in 2003 concluded that a majority of barristers wanted to keep their wigs on in civil proceedings, but would take them off for family cases "except for hearings when someone's liberty was at stake," the council said.

While final results of the survey won't be tallied until mid- to late October, an informal poll by the Bar Council suggests barristers are split down the middle about whether to shed their wigs and gowns.

Those who support getting rid of wigs and gowns say the court has to get with the times. It's a global court now, and wigs and gowns make them look positively colonial next to their counterparts in the U.S. and elsewhere.

But still others say they are proud to be different. The wig and gown set them apart from the other court staff, and it establishes a proper, serious tone for court proceedings.

Barrister John Cooper remembers the first time he donned the wig and robe, in 1983 in Wales.

"It's like being given your first school uniform," said Cooper, a criminal lawyer at 25 Bedford Row in London. "You're very proud."

Doing away with the wig requirement would certainly be easier on court officials' pocketbooks - the hairpieces do not come cheap.

At Thresher & Glenny Ltd., one of the three big purveyors of handmade legal wigs and gowns on London's Chancery Lane, wigs start at about 450 British pounds, or $906. At Stanley Ley Ltd., a judge's full-bottom wig runs at almost 1,700 pounds, or $3,422.

A vote for going wigless would be a big blow to the companies that serve this niche market. But if they are worried, their typical British reserve is helping them keep their concerns largely under wraps.

Ede and Ravenscroft Ltd., which was established in 1689 to serve King William III and Queen Mary and still weaves horsehair wigs in-house by hand, declined to comment, other than to say that it has had a long-term relationship with the courts, and it "will be pleased to satisfy their requests" in the future - whatever they may be.

Trevor Windsor, a salesman at Thresher & Glenny, admits he has a vested interest in the discussion but supports keeping wigs because he doesn't want to see another tradition go away.

"I love to see full uniforms marching around," Windsor said wistfully. "There are so few of them left. They seem to be just the hotel doormen these days."

He says he hopes the legal system will continue to use the wigs as part of the ceremonial tradition for newly-minted barristers who have been "called to the Bar."

"Maybe we'll sell them a wig, and it will sit in a box somewhere," he said.

It's not hard to imagine why some would like to bid adieu to the French-inspired vogue.

It can get sweaty under all that horsehair, not to mention that judges and barristers usually wear a suit and cap under the gown and wig. And they even braved exposure to anthrax during the recent scare, Cooper said, as humans have been known to contract the deadly bacteria through infected horsehair as far back as the 19th century.

"We're hearty beasts, we barristers," Cooper said, tongue firmly planted in cheek. "We decided for the good of justice, we would risk anthrax."

Cooper says he wishes to keep the formal dress in place in all cases for two reasons. He says the uniform ensures that the jury focuses on the merits of the argument, not what the lawyers are wearing. And secondly, he said it preserves anonymity for the legal professionals, who could be threatened for participating in controversial cases if recognized outside of court.

He also points out that the wig and gown is quite popular with the public.

"I find it strange there is a big debate about getting rid of the wigs," he said. "The public actually likes the wig, they think it adds gravitas to the court proceedings."

"I am in favor of it, not because it is tradition," Cooper summed up. "I don't think you should keep something just because it is tradition."

The issue has shown a light on a sore spot among legal professionals in the system.

Solicitors, who like barristers can represent clients in lower courts but cannot plead in higher courts, have long said that the fact that they cannot wear wigs in court makes them feel inferior to their white-topped colleagues. They want to see the wigs go.

Carolyn Kirby, president of the Law Society, which represents solicitors, told Britain's Telegraph newspaper recently: "It is important that court users should not feel intimidated or alienated by what they see in court, and therefore the Law Society favours abolishing wigs in all cases."

As for the solicitors' arguments about inequality in the court, Cooper says, "Give them the wig as well."

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