Friday, November 3, 2006

Life at the Bar: Wigs and Gowns

This article was published in The Times on 31 October 2006. You can listen to a similar version of it as a podcast here.

Wigs have their place but it is not in the courts
OCTOBER is the month for all those barristers and solicitors who have been given the title of Queen’s Counsel to have it officially bestowed on them in the Houses of Parliament. The pomp and circumstance of the ceremonial dress is a wonderful thing to behold and reminds us all of the noble history of the English system of law that has inspired so many others around the world.

But beyond this little piece of living history it is extraordinary that wigs (or syrups, as they are known in Cockney rhyming slang) continue to be worn in our courts. The law represents the balance of freedoms and obligations worked out over centuries and it works because it has adapted to the fresh challenges of the times. It is something to which the population as a whole should feel a connection at a very basic level. Yet the ancient regalia serves only to distance the dispensing of justice from the people it serves and to some extent entrenches a “them and us” mentality between litigants and lawyers. Besides this, many barristers would agree that wigs can be uncomfortable, particularly on hot days.

Of course, some say that it is essential to ensure the anonymity of the Bar. This is simply unrealistic in these days of the internet and access to profiles within clicks of a mouse. Others say that the dress enhances the authority of the lawyers. Even without the obvious question as to how the wearing of a horse-hair wig can increase one’s authority, there remains the point as to why, if this is such a formidable tool, no other profession uses anything remotely similar. Then there are solicitor-advocates, who argue that court dress should be uniform and that they should not be barred from wearing wigs while their barrister counterparts do so.

It is perhaps worth remembering that the reason that wigs were introduced had nothing to do with high principle. They simply reflected what polite society was wearing in the reign of Charles II, with fashion-conscious courtiers trying to outdo each other with the size of their wigs (hence the name “bigwig”). Interesting, yes — but no reason for this anomaly to continue. By all means let the judicial ceremonies remain. But please, let the law be for the people and by the people, rather than by lawyers in outdated attire.

This is the first in a series of articles on Life at the Bar. The others can be found at:
Barristers' clerks


Transplanted Lawyer said...

I've always been fascinated by this British custom. It nicely shows the British love of pomp and ceremony, something lacking in the U.S.A. However, wearing a suit is a lot more comfortable than a robe and a powdered wig must be, especially if you are allergic to the powder.

kris said...

Dear Transplanted

George Washington wore a powdered wig. Barristers have horse-hair wigs- no powder added as far as I know.

I have been in courts in both the US and the UK. US trial lawyers have a different air about them. Maybe it's more agressive at times, more smart-aleckey at times, more relaxed at times.

Perhaps the argument for the retention of the wig and gown is that when you're in it, you're in uniform and have to at least act the part of a learned gentleman or lady assisting the court.

As you can see, I'm all for it. I look forward to the day when I make my trip down to Ede and Ravenscroft to get fitted and kitted- because I will have earned it- even if it works out that call night is the last time I wear it.