Unconscious bias? Oxford SU urges law faculty to ban its ‘damaging’ gowns policy during moots

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By Katie King on

Students who do better in their exams wear different gowns to their ‘commoner’ peers

Image credit: University of Oxford, Faculty of Law

The University of Oxford’s Student Union has backed a motion, proposed by a second year law student, banning mooters from wearing different gowns based on their grades.

At Oxford, those who outperform their peers by obtaining scholarships or by scoring firsts in first year are able to wear distinguishable “scholars’ gowns”, which are longer and have sleeves. All other students wear “commoners”. These gowns are worn at formal events, exams and, for law students, moots.

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Student Thomas Howard thinks there’s a risk the lawyers that judge the moots will be unconsciously biased based on the gowns worn. According to Cherwell, Howard, who is studying law with law studies in Europe at Magdalen College, said:

“This is damaging for those in a commoners’ and can be for the scholars too since the judge may expect more of them.”

For those taking part in the moots, there’s plenty at stake. Some of these courtroom advocacy practices are judged by corporate lawyers — impress them and your training contract chances will likely be boosted. Other moots come with an enticing financial reward, which of course would be a big incentive for any student.

The SU has now passed Howard’s motion with 38 votes to three, branding the practice of wearing scholars’ gowns in moots “damaging”. Cherwell reports Oxford SU’s vice-president for access and academic affairs will now petition the law faculty to change its policy. Legal Cheek has made attempts to contact the SU and the university but is yet to hear back.

The elite university’s unusual gown system has recently been pushed into the spotlight after a trio of Oxford-goers called the practice discriminatory and divisive. Others, like law student Anna Lukina, couldn’t disagree more, telling Legal Cheek:

“My view on scholars’ gowns is simple: excellence should be rewarded, and tradition should be preserved.”

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