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Should barristers still wear wigs and gowns?

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The cherished uniform of the bar remains an important stamp of legal responsibility, argues Queen Mary law graduate Jag Landa

It is a truth nationally acknowledged, that the young aspiring criminal law barrister dreams and drools of the day he or she is called to the bar and declared utter barrister. It is a further truth that although the civil and family courts proudly boast of their march up onto the hill of modernism by emancipating themselves from the shackles that were the wig and gown, it is still common to all barristers that they once wore the wig and gown upon being called to the bar.

The wig and gown are collectively the official stamp of that special legal responsibility that distinguishes the individual as a barrister, regardless of practice area. Regrettably, as the teeth of modernity, financial constriction and cut-throat reform bite ever deeper into the bar, the wigs and gowns may soon be but a cherished memory at the English criminal bar, one of few survivors that have just about held onto the tradition. One merely needs to observe the dwindling occasions where a crown court is formally opened by the usher or clerk to see how much the root of tradition and history has already been snipped by the scissors of change.

Deep within the stone cold forsaken halls of a dusty crown court, barristers flock to the robing room, engaged in legal chatter, armouring their bodies with a jet — black gown stitched with the common thread of commitment to the law, topped off with a horsehair wig with rolled curls donned upon the head — a symbol of anonymity and solemnity, that ultimately delivers some measure of disguise from defendants and witnesses, as well as serving as something of a leveller between those of different ages, perceived experience and contrasting sartorial tastes and budgets.

When the wig and gown come on, the barrister becomes an advocate, adhering to the decorum of the court, practising the law, and indulging in the examination of evidence. When the wig and gown come off, the barrister, judge or court official freely reverts to normal life, as a civilian, enjoying his or her liberty.

Some questions must be asked: Can a reverend be a reverend without a collar? Can a king or queen be a king or queen without his or her crown? What use is an inkless pen to the scholar? Such people of society hold chief roles, and their roles are reinforced through the authority their external uniform commands and bequeaths upon them. Without that external attire, they are just ordinary members of society with no physical means of differentiation. The perennial moot point then is why the wigs and gowns are considered “out of touch”, by some at the English criminal bar where they are still worn.

To throw in some appreciation, some exposition is warranted. By hopping into the time machine of history, we learn that the origins of the gowns of the English bar can, roughly speaking, be dated to the reign of King Edward III. Wigs were fashionable in France during the reign of Louis XIII and King Charles I later made wigs mandatory in polite society while King Charles II, emerged as the key figure of legal costume in England. Under the reign of King George IV the wigs and gowns saw piecemeal reform.

Through this historical development, the judiciary and barristers have frequently been able to demarcate and attach to themselves a sense of solemnity and honour on the one hand, and upholders and administrators of the law on the other hand. When one looks at a judge on the bench in a crown court, wearing a wig and robe, alongside the barristers also in wigs and black gowns, the dress represents an inheritance within which is enshrined the preservation of a civilised society throughout centuries, as well as a common, unchanging commitment to achieving justice and a fair trial. Of course, the increasing presence of solicitor advocates has seen brought into the mix those who wear wigs and robes too.

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The significance of these historical emblems bestows upon barristers and judges of the English criminal bar and bench more than just tradition, but also as stated, an element of respect, impartiality and anonymity. The wigs and gowns further add an element of seriousness to the criminal hearing, reminding the accused of the respect and decorum that needs to be displayed in a criminal court of law in England. All the points identified are still very much warranted in an age of modernism and political correctness, perhaps even more so in a time when many, including those who are defendants, are not used to appearing in formal situations, and when arguably a willingness to show feelings of antipathy and contempt in everyday situations can lead to adverse assessments by a jury.

As Thomas Woodcock rightly observes in his 2003 book, Legal Habits: A Brief Sartorial History of Wig, Robe and Gown, “the wigs, robes and gowns worn by judges and barristers are a symbol of the continuity of the world’s principal legal system. While the wearing of wigs lends to the administration of justice an impersonal decorum, the gowns and robes emphasise the formal gravity and dignity of justice — as important today as in medieval times.”

The wigs and robes are consequently no mere artefacts of an anachronistic age, rather they are the articles of independence and justice that have survived hundreds of years of change and development. A vote in 2007 encapsulated the positive sentiments expressed towards keeping the traditional wig and gown under former Lord Chief Justice Lord Phillips. One has to just pay a visit to the Royal Courts of Justice to understand the deep history of the dress. Therefore, even if wigs and gowns are outdated, as items of clothing and headdress, does that translate as to their having no practical value? I would argue they continue to serve a valid and unique purpose.

Proponents contesting the use of wigs and gowns have advanced the argument that those who come before the criminal court should not feel “intimidated”, thereby implying that the wigs and gowns ought to be done away with. This would not just defeat the aim of ensuring an understanding of obedience and respect for the law, especially in a criminal proceeding, but if such a road was to be followed, then the criminal court would be deprived of its atmosphere of law and order. A fair trial is the core objective in a criminal court, not making the accused feel less intimidated. Feeling intimidated may well be a naturally triggered sentiment that cannot be suppressed when awaiting trial. Our civilised society, the English criminal bar effectively balances the respect for the court on the one hand, and impartiality and independence on the other. Would the intimidation of defendants and witnesses not better be met by appropriate changes to ensure greater fairness under equality of arms, entitlements to legal aid, and expert opinions, rather than removing formal clothing?

There are also those who advance the argument that court dress is “outdated”. Such remarks are narrow, showing nothing more than ignorance and depreciation of the rich legal history that has shaped a plethora of other global societies. One merely needs to glance at the trendy, ordinary suit-wearing dominated judiciary and lawyers of the world in comparison to the spectacular dress prevalent in the English criminal bar. It is wonderful that we have not succumbed to trends in that respect. The fact that we have kept our court dress demonstrates our undying loyalty to our law and jurisprudence that has inspired and shaped many other jurisdictions. We should be proud that our judiciary and barristers have a distinctive uniform that has been preserved throughout the centuries.

If the temperature gets too warm in court, it is very simple to remove the wigs and robes. Otherwise they are quite beneficial during winter. Ultimately, wigs and gowns remain a cherished uniform and are not archaic relics of an anachronistic era. They represent judicial evolution, independence, a rich history, precedent and the Rule of Law.

As Lord Denning wrote, “we still wear our robes and our wigs. On state occasions our gold robes and full-bottomed wigs. In court our black gowns and small wigs. Some say all this is out of date. Maybe it is. But it gives dignity to the occasions. It conceals the personality and the bald heads. It portrays the judge as the impartial administrator of the law. It is a mark of his authority and source of respect. So, it is good to keep it.”

Jag Landa completed an undergraduate degree in law and masters in law at Queen Mary, University of London. He is currently working as a court usher and is an aspiring barrister. He enjoys writing and reading in his spare time.

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75 Comments

Anonymous

I’d be interested to see if there was any decline in application numbers if they got rid of the traditional dress.

(9)(1)

Anonymous

One does not apply to the bar to wear a wig and gown

(7)(10)

Anonymous

I think some people do.

(20)(1)

Anonymous

They’re not usually the ones who get pupillage though…

(14)(3)

Anonymous

When the wig and gown come on, the barrister becomes an advocate, adhering to the decorum of the court, practising the law, and indulging in the examination of evidence. When the wig and gown come off, the barrister, judge or court official freely reverts to normal life, as a civilian, enjoying his or …[her]… liberty.

(22)(5)

CrimJnr

Load of tosh. It makes you sweat like a pig and is a general pain in the ass.

(23)(6)

Anonymous

No, they should instead come to court in bikinis.

(16)(1)

Anonymous

Love Island meets Rumpole.

(6)(1)

Anonymous

AAAAAH!!!

SHE WHO MUST BE OBEYED!!!!

(6)(1)

We need more diversity

Wigs and gowns should be banned. Overpriced and too expensive black barristers.

(6)(47)

Anonymous

So they are expensive for blacks only and not anyone from a white or asian background? You sound like a proper scumbag.

(36)(5)

We need more diversity

Stop with the racism and denial please. You can deny a fact all you like but it’s still true.

(1)(14)

Martin Routh

Absolutely got to be kept. I’ve just got one quibble. In the civil sphere, the rules for when you do and don’t need to wear them need to be consistently applied by all members of the judiciary. There is nothing more irritating than going to a distant District Registry to do an appeal (which should be robed) dragging all the clobber along, only to find that the judge isn’t bothering. Even worse is going to a County Court to do some nonsense in front of a DJ to find that they *are* robing.

(34)(1)

Andon

@Martin Routh: Jul 19 2019 9:26am

Totally agree with that.

Robing in front of a DJ in a tiny modern courtroom where you are about 3ft from the Bench and the witness box and more often than not sitting down, feels absurd.

(21)(0)

Anonymous

Indeed. It does happen though.

(0)(0)

Anonymous

Like DJ Matthews in Bristol who made me robe for a Small Claim about a pizza

(22)(0)

Dis Bard

What type of pizza?

Andon

“If the temperature gets too warm in court, it is very simple to remove the wigs and robes. Otherwise they are quite beneficial during winter”

1. It is only very simple to remove the wigs and robes if the judge takes that decision of his own motion.

2. Courts have central heating these days, you know. Which, combined with either no windows or windows which don’t open, leads to some court rooms being hotter and stuffier than they are during the summer.

Plus, regardless of the weather, wigs are itchy….

Other than that, I agree with most of what was said and as a practitioner who does both civil and criminal work, I am in favour of keeping them for criminal matters and the more serious civil cases.

(9)(0)

Anonymous

My pupil master was a QM graduate and a better all-round barrister you will struggle to find.

(14)(21)

Anonymous

What year was he called to the bar? 20 years ago it wasn’t unusual.

The suggestion is not that the author will not make a good barrister, only that the bar tends to close ranks when it comes to university attended

(14)(3)

Oxford Grad

My understanding was that Queen Mary isn’t bad for law? Also, sure, some of the self-described “top commercial sets” take only people with Oxbridge Firsts. But that really isn’t true for the whole Bar. I think it’s a mistake to discourage potentially good applicants because of the university they attended from ages 18-21.

(8)(19)

Anonymous

No way you went to Oxford. Troll.

(0)(0)

Anonymous

If you go to QM you are, by definition, intellectually second rate as well as badly educated. Same goes for Warwick and all such places. The public needs protecting from people who fancy being barristers but simply are not up to it. That is why the top sets insist on Oxbridge at undergraduate level.

(24)(2)

D.E. Robed QC

This is just starry eyed nonsense. The type of sentiment that’s sure to put a pupillage panel right off.

It’s no different to any other uniform. At the start it has a charm then after a little while it’s just an annoying and tedious part of your working day that you have to endure. It also means extra crap to carry everywhere, which on a winters morning, climbing the hill up to Lewes Crown court, doesn’t leave you thinking about the majesty of this regalia. More just that you could chuck it.

(26)(8)

Anonymous

I agree, although at the start it was god awful… at least PM didn’t make me wear it during first six

(5)(1)

Anonymous

Wigs/robes etc belong in a theatre.

(4)(9)

Future MC Trainee 2020

I did a few mini-pupilages in 2017. Hated the bar. Don’t understand how law students aspire to work in chambers compared to working as a solicitor. Rather work on mega corporate deals over representing cretin tenants facing eviction.

(24)(25)

Andon

Future MC Trainee 2020: Jul 19 2019 9:33am

If you need to have it explained to you, then likely you would not understand anyway.

I hope you enjoy all that photocopying of the papers in all those mega-corp deals through the wee small hours when you get your MC TC…..

(40)(14)

Oxford BA History

I can imagine helping third class tenants is not the most appealing.

On my mini pupilage, I was shadowing a barrister for 5 days and he was earning peanuts representing criminal thugs. My Armani suit cost more than what he made the whole week.

(14)(27)

Andon

@Oxford BA History: Jul 19 2019 9:40am

Again….you clearly value what you imagine will be the dim reflected glory of doing the photocopying or proof reading on someone else’s mega-deal simply because it is a big name client, to the intellectual challenge involved in untangling a complex county court possession claim (just because the parties are “third class”, to adopt your charming label, it doesn’t mean the cases are simple) in which you only just received the papers, and then, the next day, trouncing your oppo in court before cheerfully having a beer together on the way home.

Plus, of course, pupils and baby barristers do a lot more proper lawyering than MC drones and unless they solely do criminal work, they will earn a decent wedge anyway.

Simply put, there is more to life than money (though I doubt you and your Armani suit would agree). Independence, flexibility, work/life balance, intellectual challenge, eating what you kill, not being stuck in an office for 15 hours a day, generally being amongst intelligent, agreeable and funny colleagues and opponents, are just a few “pros” I can think of off the top of my head….

You are clearly an all style and no substance, money grubbing little sociopath troll, so I am sure you’ll fit in wonderfully at an MC firm one day.

(35)(12)

US Firm Top Whacker

Lol not about the money?

The only reason any sane law student would opt for the bar over a law firm is because of the money commercial barristers make, which is even more than the already enviable amount commercial solicitors do. But if getting into a top firm is competitive, well, a top chambers… Lets just say the ratio of money: likelihood of achieving it is far, far in the law firms’ favour.

Cut the crap about work and prestige and challenge and independence and flexibility, we’re all in this capitalist clockwork for the dollah, if you could you know damn well youd currently be at a beach or a nice ski resort somewhere abroad rathed than trudging to work every day.

Or I guess you could be one of those human rights fools who will go their entire professional lives earning peanuts, complaining about third rate problems, and voting for senile old farts like Corbyn.

(3)(3)

Anonymous

Keep whacking them out tosser.

Anonymous

Who wears Armani suits to mini pupillages? Crass

(27)(1)

CrimBob

I once had a mini pupil who turned up with a blue Ede and Ravenscroft bag containing the wig, gown, collar and bands that they intended to wear for practice at the Bar.

They seemed genuinely miffed when I turned down their request that they be allowed to wear them as they accompanied me around the Crown Court and sulked all week.

I don’t believe they ever got pupillage.

(13)(0)

Mario

I’m guessing you did your mini at a housing/ property set and so, you knew what you were getting yourself into. I had a rather different experience where I sat with a barrister working on a civil fraud case stemming from the Madoff Ponzi scheme fallout.

(11)(1)

Boggis LCJ (Ret’d)

Future McTrainee more like!

Yes, I would like fries with that.

You may call me “My Lord”.

(10)(0)

JBT

Law wasn’t for you then, eh?

(4)(1)

Anon

With respect, I feel like there are far more pressing issues that the criminal bar has to contend with at the moment…

(5)(4)

Anon

Who cares? Aren’t there more serious topics to be discussed? God sake!

(5)(4)

Anonymous

Originally from Canada which follows a similar trial procedure to the UK: gowns remain in higher-level courts but the wigs have been ditched (at least by the advocates, not sure about all judges). I think this would be a good compromise – I still find it odd that the bar insists on trying to make every barrister look like an old white man.

(6)(12)

Bob

I am at the Sydney Bar. Full robes for all indictable crime and Court of Criminal Appeal. Gown but no wig in Federal Court and Court of Appeal. Highly variable practices in civil work in the District Court and Supreme Court. I would gladly abandon the wig for all purposes.

(5)(5)

Anonymous

Was it just me, or was the article written in such a prose like manner that it distracted from the issue? Totally dull.

(13)(4)

Andon

@Anonymous: Jul 19 2019 11:30am

It did kind of look like a first year Legal Method/Legal History essay, yeah.

But as the disclaimers to these type of articles on LC usually/often say, they are written by law students, so we should cut them a little slack….

The writing style was a little stodgy, but the points made were decent ones.

(11)(2)

Paul Cristoff

Nope it’s just you. It’s a great article and written with a unique vibrancy. I very much enjoyed reading it. You’re are an a****** though 🙂

(6)(5)

Anonymous

Abandon robes? I don’t think so.

We should be dressing up more in court, not less.

Pirate costumes in shipping cases; hard hat and tool belt like builder guy from the Village People for construction disputes; Inspector Clouseau mac, hat and gloves for actions against the police; the Child Catcher from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang for the family courts…the possibilities are endless.

And I’ve no doubt Ede & Ravenscroft would be all in favour.

(84)(3)

Anonymous

Barristers are weeds.

(0)(16)

E. D. E. Ravenscroft

Since the Supreme Court copes on a day-to-day basis without the need for robes, I’m pretty certain every Circuit and District Judge in the country would be just fine dispensing with them as well.

Also totally agree with the above comments – for civil practice the major annoyance comes from carrying them around with you (and wearing court shirts) ‘just in case’. IMO all court listings should include whether or not a hearing is to be robed, as listings for hearings in the Rolls Buildings do.

(8)(1)

Anonymous

But the Supreme Court is not stuffed full of common folk. The lower classes behave better when one puts on a wig.

(6)(0)

Anonymous

Wigs and gowns should be ditched ASAP. They add nothing to legal proceedings except the inconvenience of bringing them along.

(2)(11)

Anonymous

2019

(0)(2)

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