News

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

By on
41

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.

The latest comments from across Legal Cheek

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.”

For all the latest commercial awareness info, and advance notification of Legal Cheek's careers events:

Sign up to the Legal Cheek Hub

41 Comments

Anonymous

Silks’, juniors’ and solicitors’ gowns. That is all.

Tab

The question you ought to be asking is this. If the people judging moots are allowed to know whether the competitor is a scholar or a commoner, why not have the same rule for those marking their exam papers? Why not have scholars’ exam papers printed in a different colour to those of commoners, for example? The obvious reason is that there would be some unconscious bias creeping in. I note also that the gown one wears in court is entirely different in appearance to the academic gowns used at Oxford and Cambridge, and there is no objective reason to wear an academic gown during a moot at all (other than grandstanding).

Anonymous

Gowns were worn during moots at Liverpool (we had our own moot-room laid out like a court room too!).

It’s not just Oxbridge that do this.

Legna & Lived

based on your stupid comment, I can tell that you did not read the article. It is not arguing that they should eradicate the use of gowns, but everyone should wear the same coloured and sized gowns. It is common sense that people were gowns while mooting everywhere

Anonymous

Actually, L&L, it’s only Oxbridge and a few red-bricks who bother with gowns for mooting at all.

Most don’t.

@nighthawkprof

common sense?

this is law we are talking about — and no: it’s not necessary at all

if anything they become a prop and a student trained to speak “in the open” is going to be better prepared for his/her career as a negotiator advocate or for general interactions with the public his/her clients and opposing team (as well as home team)

Linguist

> It is common sense that people were gowns while mooting everywhere

That makes no sense at all. How can a person be (or have been) a gown?

doxbridge

lol @ ur uni

Anonymous

The “obvious reason” is that moots are generally recreational and, while taken seriously, do not result in a degree grade – most students abandon them entirely after the mandatory first year one.

Exams, on the other hand, are the medium of degree assessment.

@nighthawkprof

there is simply no point to the robes – and it weakens the reputation of the robe wearers that they would not object to an equal playing field — because that\s the reality of it in the minds of much of the public weaned on ye olde stuff

Anonymous

Those poor snowflakes

Anonymous

FFS!!!!!!!

#snowflakes

This all started with Drynites, in my opinion!

Anonymous

Two bedwetters did not like your comments.

Probably triggered them.

Anonymous

Yeah,

Someone obviously feels strongly about the night time wee wee pants!

The Voice of Wisdom (also a parent).

I think the point that the (albeit unhinged) writer was trying to make is that the current generation are often shielded from negative feedback when young, and this makes it all the more difficult to deal with when they enter young adulthood.

The analogy (presumably) being that earlier generations learned two things as a result of negative feedback:

1. How to deal with adverse emotions/ situations.

2. How to avoid them in future.

The bed wetting analogy actually makes sense. Previous generations would have either endured the discomfort of a wet bed or the humiliation of having to wear nappies, and this taught them not to wet the bed.

The current generation have been given “Drynites” which eliminate both the discomfort of the wet bed and the humiliation of the nappy, so they can wear a pair of absorbent pants and pretend that the problem does not exist.

They are thereby shielded from the negative emotion/ feeling/ feedback but the problem does not go away as nothing is being learned, and you end up with an adult bedwetter who’s delicate feelings have not been disturbed.

Safe-spaces and being protected from offence are part of the same problem. The young person does not learn how to handle the negative situation and learn from it, or respond to it. Instead, they grow up believing that they are entitled to be protected and cannot handle the situation when they are not being kept “safe”.

Ultimately, going after little perceived unfairnesses in situations like this is like a four year old complaining that her companion’s cake has got a cherry on top whilst hers hasn’t.

In both cases, the individual concerned needs to learn to get over it, and deal with it, early on.

Snowflake ❄️

It’s about time!

Anonymous

Blimey, Anna Lukina’s comment sounds like its been taken straight from the mouth of Umbridge.

Anonymous

hahahaha this is class

Anonymous

We just wore scholars’ gowns anyway even though we were commoners

Keep the gowns, just realise they mean little

I won several moots in a commoner’s gown in situations where one or both of my opponents were wearing scholar’s gowns.

These gowns really don’t denote “excellence”, they typically mean the wearer has a bit less of a social life. I ran rings around most of them when it came to verbal argument, even if I wouldn’t have necessarily been able to do the same in an exam.

Anonymous

*oral* argument.

Are you sure your mooting triumphs weren’t at the University of Hertfordshire?

Anonymous

Alright mate, we don’t need to know how you spend your weekends.

SingaporeSwing

Zzzzzzz

Lad on the lash in Magaluf and loving it

At my public school, the scholars were supposed to wear gowns all the time but I nearly always got away without wearing mine. The mistake most people made was wearing them at the start of the year then trying to stop. I just never wore mine so the teachers didn’t realise I was supposed to be wearing it. Sometimes one of the teachers would realise anyway or someone would dob me in if a teacher told them to go and get theirs but not much. Looking back, a lot of what I learned at school was how to play the system and get away with things.

I didn’t articulate the thought as a teenager but putting it into words now, it seems really vulgar to voluntarily wear a gown.

I didn’t go to Oxbridge but it’s one thing that always weirds me out when people talk about it being ‘posh’ for things like gowns. The whole culture really seems quite nouveau.

Anonymous

Its only the vulgarians who have the money for public school these days. It was bad enough in my day but at least it could be “dealt with”

botzarelli

It’s a long time ago now but when I mooted (as a Commoner) at Oxford I never felt that wearing the flimsy sleeveless gown had the judges mentally tutting at me. Nor do I recall ever while judging moots, having favoured anyone for wearing a Scholars gown. Indeed, I can’t remember noticing anyone else’s gown at all whether I was being an advocate, judging or just watching a moot whether at university or at my Inn while training.

Anonymous

There is one compulsory moot during your time at Oxford. It is pass/fail with an extremely low threshold for a pass and often there is no winner or loser adjudged, often just being on the merits of the case rather than the strength of performance. Scholars gowns make no difference, unlike in exams where there is an argument. Most other moots are not organised directly by the faculty so this motion is pointless anyway.

The Oxford Student Union is full of middle-class left-wing hypocrites who claim that Oxford’s gowns are evil ‘elitism’ in all instances. Why? Because 9/10 times they didn’t do as well in their first year as they think they were entitled to and so don’t benefit from having one. You can’t choose to attend an elitist institution then cry when you find out you aren’t the big fish anymore. If you want evidence just look at the whining when a college (I think it was Wadham) brought back Scholars dinner. It’s all about jealousy and the University shouldn’t pander to it.

The remaining 1/10 are champagne socialists who think they can make up for going to Oxford by token measures like this. Again, the University shouldn’t pander to it.

Anonymous

My college also had a Scholars’ dinner and nobody seemed to mind…

A trainee

In case anyone is wondering, the Oxford Students Union (OUSU) is widely ridiculed and ignored by students. They don’t represent students. Students are represented by their college student unions, called JCRs (or MCRs for masters students). Even these can be OTT, but they better reflect students’ actual views, rather than the views of student politicians all of a certain political persuasion.

Some JCRs want to leave OUSU but then they would lose sexual health funding (free contraception etc.) so it’s not worth it.

On the whole moot issue (lol), lawyers only have to do one moot during their whole degree and it’s barely even marked. I couldn’t tell you what I got in mine. It doesn’t count toward ANYTHING. Getting to put a gown on so you can pretend to be a barrister is probably the best bit about it.

To reiterate, the moot is informal and does not matter.

This is coming from a commoner – the scholar’s gown was always out of reach for me.

A trainee

And the other moots spoken of in the article are commercial or society moots. They may be at the law faculty but they’re not part of your degree.

The great thing about Oxford is that you aren’t judged on your background, on your last essay, on your gown. Especially in law, you’re judged on your case, your arguments. That’s why I prefer mooting to debating – skill matters, but it’s ultimately about the quality of your arguments.

Anonymous

QCs and junior barristers wear different gowns in court. It is ridiculous to suggest those judging the moot will be more influenced by the gown of the advocate than the quality of argument.

James

Anyone who describes themselves as ‘damaged’ or ‘harmed’ by gown wearing at Oxford shouldn’t be at Oxford (or any other higher education institution).

oxgrad

I did have a scholar’s gown but I think it’s silly to suggest that anyone cared, or frankly noticed, whether you had one or not.

I suspect the only people who did care, or who did notice, were those who were chippy about not having one (I’m looking at you, Thomas Howard). Incidentally, many people with a scholar’s gown didn’t go on to get a first in finals. The notion that a slightly different gown is “damaging” is fanciful.

Barista to Barrister

Children! Children!

Just a know observation when it comes to gowns: when you’re at the Bar the novelty wears off very quickly.

Anonymous

Didn’t even wear them during the BVC course. Had to effect on my future career.

Mountains and molehills.

Lord Harley of Counsel

You should wear your medals in a discreet place on your gown.

Anonymous

It seems a bit weird that they have different gowns. That’s the main story here.

Why the fvck does a modern university make its students wear different gowns?

Anonymous

Or indeed clothes at all?

Anonymous

same reason a duelling society has different tunics ffs

Anonymous

There should be different gowns also depending on whether one was privately or state educated and then a further differentiation if one attended a 1st XI public school

Cantabridgian

What can you expect from a second rank Varsity.

Join the conversation

Related Stories