News

Keep wigs to help disguise judges, Lord Chief Justice argues

By on
74

Lord Burnett recalls taking the same Tube home as a defendant he’d just sentenced

The costumes worn by lawyers and judges in the criminal courts have been archaic and outdated for as long as anyone can remember.

But according to the Lord Chief Justice, wigs aren’t likely to be scrapped any time soon.

Lord Burnett of Maldon made the case for the horsehair headgear in a talk last week — arguing that they help to anonymise judges passing sentence.

Judges adopted wigs, along with the rest of polite society at the time, during the reign of Charles II (1660-1685). But while the rest of the world gradually dropped the fashion, denizens of the legal world kept their rugs firmly in place.

Burnett’s predecessor Lord Phillips dispensed with wigs in the civil and family courts in 2008, but Crown Court and Court of Appeal (Criminal Division) judges still wear them.

Speaking to the Society of Editors on 19 November, Burnett was asked whether it was time to finally ditch the costume altogether — but came down firmly on the side of tradition.

The 2021 Legal Cheek Chambers Most List

“It’s interesting that whenever opinion is canvassed on this, particularly opinion canvassed outside the legal profession, people quite like them,” Burnett said. “I think they like them because they lend a dignity and solemnity to the proceedings.”

He continued:

“I don’t think one should underestimate the importance of the nature of criminal proceedings, where the judicial arm of the state is determining guilt or innocence and then depriving people of liberty sometimes for very long periods. It’s a very solemn thing and it should never in my view be done casually, so that’s really why it hasn’t changed and for the moment the preponderance of view is that it’s best left as it is.”

And, he said, there’s a practical reason wigs are good — as a form of judicial disguise. Burnett recalled his own experience as a criminal judge:

“When I was a recorder — that’s a part-time fee-paid judge sitting in the Crown Court for a few weeks a year — I sentenced somebody at Snaresbrook Crown Court. I didn’t put him in prison as it happens, but I sentenced him, and he and I both travelled on the same Tube away from court. He sat opposite me and he didn’t have a clue who I was.”

That, the 62-year-old reckons, is an important feature of wigs for judges and barristers alike: “that it anonymises them. It takes away their personality from the function that they’re performing”.

So would he ever do a Phillips on the last bastion of cranial tradition? Burnett concluded: “Straight answer to your question: will they never go? Of course I can’t say that, but in the short-term, I think not”.

Sign up to the Legal Cheek Newsletter

74 Comments

Getting Wiggy With It

Wigs ought to stay and the push for reduction in their use because of moaning leftist do-gooders has been a disgrace. Wigs are valuable when interacting with the less sophisticated at criminal and civil matters as the clients listen more when one wears a wig and realise the seriousness of the situation.

(65)(21)

SM

If you need to wear a wig to get the client to listen more, you’re in the wrong job!

(16)(27)

A

You’ll understand once you qualify.

(23)(2)

Tubs of Counsel

I agree. That’s why I always wear one down the Mags, no matter what everyone says!

(3)(8)

Scouser of Counsel

I would happily see the end of the horsehair and Batman cape for barristers and Solicitors-advocate.

As I tell every mini-pupil, the novelty of wearing it wears off after the first week in the Crown Court. After that it’s an irritation for us that makes an already stressful and alienating situation worse for those unfamiliar with the court setting. Not to mention the extra luggage.

If other professions had kept their traditional uniforms, we would still be seeing bowler-hatted civil servants, teachers with mortar-boards, doctors with white coats and police with Victorian pith helmets.

In the region where I practice, the Police actually brought back the helmet, having ditched it a decade ago, because the local Police and Crime Commissioner decided that it’s “what the public expects” a police officer to wear when on foot. Officers themselves think they’re impractical.

In court, I like the three-piece suit as the waistcoat hides my girth, but I’d ditch the rest given the choice.

If we need something visual to tell everyone we’re lawyers perhaps we could keep just the collar and bands? Either that or a lanyard and badge with “lawyer” printed on it in big letters…

(6)(31)

Minister of Silly Walks

“If other professions had kept their traditional uniforms, we would still be seeing bowler-hatted civil servants, teachers with mortar-boards, doctors with white coats and police with Victorian pith helmets.”

That would all be great though.

(10)(1)

Minister of Silly Wigs

Great but a laughing stock.

(1)(10)

A

Still, Scouse, in Merseyside most of the punters are comfortable with appearing in criminal courts, and whiplash and tripping claims from their early teens.

(3)(0)

Hackaforte

Wigs also serve the purpose of allowing you to cover your head in a draughty courtroom where protocol precludes the wearing of hats. I think that’s also the reason the clergy managed to hold onto them well into the 19th century.

(13)(1)

Diana

Keep the wigs. It gives practitioners and students alike something to be excited about.

Also, how does he know the defendant didn’t know who he was? Just because he didn’t get up to assault him or maybe didn’t want to make eye contact doesn’t mean he didn’t know.

(23)(7)

Anonymous

Something to be excited about?

Do you have a wig fetish, Diana??

(0)(3)

Anonymous

Wigs clearly look ridiculous and fancy dress should be kept out of the courtroom.

And they certainly shouldn’t be used to ‘disguise’ judges, who shouldn’t hand out verdicts they’re ashamed of and want to go into hiding afterwards.

(8)(55)

HHJ Anon

It’s not so much about being ashamed of the verdict or sentence, it’s more about not wanting to be stabbed on the tube…

(12)(0)

Anonymous

What type of sentence would he have to give out for someone to want to stab him on the tube?

Judges mustn’t be afraid to look someone they have sentenced in the eye and shouldnt be hiding behind hairpieces.

(1)(14)

Actually a practitioner

Civil barrister, 10 years call. My eyes roll whenever I get a judge who insists on robing. I am a professional doing a tough job. I have enough to do without remembering to bring my dress up box to work.

(16)(49)

Commentator

Who is talking about judges going into hiding? What a bizarre comment to make. Judges may well hand out sentences they are personally “ashamed” of (although ascribing such subjective emotional language to legal decisions seems an illogical starting point), but that is a different point to what the LCJ was talking about.

The point is that judges are performing their duties dispassionately on behalf of the State (i.e the Queen). When someone is sentenced they are sentenced by the Crown. LCJ is saying wigs are part of the apparatus of properly de-personalising judges and seeing them as an arm of the State (which they are).

(32)(4)

Anonymous

Lord Burnett us talking about judges hiding. Yes, it is bizarre that they should find it acceptable to do so.

Judges are performing their duties on behalf of the people of the country. Wigs are no more part of de-personalising them or seeing them as an arm of the state than dressing up as a clown or a Roman soldier would be. Wigs just make them look daft and out of touch.

(4)(37)

Anon

Getting rid of wigs and gowns would just be a cheap way to inject modernity into a historic system purely for appearances’ sake, just like the way they ditched Latin. Neither seem to bother anyone, so what’s the point? England has the greatest legal tradition of any state the world over and that history should be embraced not cast aside.

(38)(5)

Anonymous

Unfortunately the English legal system is one of the worst and most unfair of those on developed countries.

(4)(45)

Clue

It isn’t though is it. Hence why English law is used throughout the commercial world.

(47)(5)

Anonymous

It is though is it. English law absolutely isn’t used exclusively throughout the commercial world. Commercial law in some (by no means all) countries is often based on English common law , but this is due to the British empire, which no longer exists. But the current legal system in England is one of the worst in the developed world.

Summary: English common law – good. Current English statutory framework – bad.

(3)(38)

Cal

English law is the most popular choice for parties in commercial contracts. A review by the ICC in 2019 showed that 85% of such contracts were governed by English law, whether providing for litigation or English-seated arbitration.

(3)(1)

Real

A report by the ICC in 2019 found that 85% of international commercial contracts were governed by English law.

(3)(0)

Anonymous

The English system is great if you did it and want to get off.

(1)(0)

Anonymous

More like if you didn’t do it and want banged up.

(2)(1)

Charlie

If you use Latin:

1. Your pleadings disclose the fact that you are a pompous arse; and

2. Ordinary people, in respect of whom the law applies equally as it does in respect of people covered under para 1 above, have no idea what you’re talking about.

(4)(16)

Old Ciss

Legum servi sumus ut liberi esse possimus.

(2)(0)

SM

I always use Latin on an ad hoc basis, not ad nauseam but sometimes de bene esse. Carpe diem!

(10)(0)

Hubert

Vale, Puer scelestus! 😉

(1)(0)

Latin can be fun (caveat: not my original limerick)

There was a young man called Rex

Who had very small organs of sex

When charged with exposure,

He said, with composure,

De minimis non curat lex.

(8)(0)
(1)(0)

A

Brexit voter, no doubt.

(1)(1)

Cessle

Nope. SNP MP.

(1)(0)

Anonymous

Meanwhile, the LCJ turns a blind eye to the latest news of serial fraud amongst court-appointed expert medical witnesses and their associated agencies, presenting themselves as qualified practitioners, as well as a rather cosy ‘hospitality’ relationship with a number of major law firms. Oh, the delicious irony. Still, there’s nothing like focusing on priorities. Absolutely nothing like a focus on priorities.

(1)(6)

Anonymous

The expert medical witness system is a joke. Most of them are not independent.

(3)(0)

anon

Lord Burnett is not talking about judges’ hiding. It is bizarre to suggest that. Judges perform their duties on behalf of the Crown. Wigs are part of de-personalising them or seeing them as an arm of the state, just like dressing up as a clown or a Roman soldier would be. Wigs do not make them look daft or out of touch.

(22)(1)

Anonymous

He is absolutely talking about judges hiding – bizarre to suggest otherwise. He says that wigs help judges not to he recognised on the tube. That is clearly saying that he wants judges to be able to hide behind their wigs. Dressing up as a clown or a Roman soldier would be daft, so is wearing a wig. It makes the crown and the state look out of touch.

(0)(19)

Anon

Lord Burnett is not saying that judges use wigs to hide. It is bizarre to suggest that. He is in fact making a different point: wigs depersonalise the holders of judicial office. Uniform generally has that intention and effect, as with clowns and soldiers (of whatever era). The reason counsel bow to the judge is because he discharges his duty on behalf of the Crown and, just as you bow to the Sovereign, you bow to the judge.

(25)(0)

Anonymous

Burnett is absolutely talking about judges hiding – bizarre to suggest otherwise given he actually says so. Judges are people, putting on a toupee doesn’t change that. Dressing up in wigs, clown outfits, or soldier costumes makes judges look daft.

You may bow to someone in a daft wig. We don’t.

(1)(23)

Anon

No, Burnett is not saying that judges are hiding. It would be bizarre for him to suggest that, which is why he does not do so. Hence it is bizarre and false to suggest that he is suggesting that. He is in fact saying that judges use wigs to depersonalise themselves. Judges do not dress up in clown outfits or soldier costumes. Anyone in court, and counsel in particular, will bow to the judge. That is because he is a representative of the Sovereign.

(19)(1)

Anonymous

Yes Burnett clearly does say that wigs provide a way for judges to hide. That is why it would be bizarre to suggest otherwise. You are correct that judges wear neither clown outfit nor soldier costume in court. It would look daft if they did in the same way that wearing a wig looks daft. Not everyone in court bows. You can bow, we don’t. Wearing a daft wig doesn’t make one a representative of the crown.

(0)(20)

Anon

No, Burnett is not saying that judges are hiding. It would be bizarre for him to suggest that, which is why he does not do so. Hence it is bizarre and false to suggest that he is suggesting that. He is in fact saying that judges use wigs to depersonalise themselves. Judges do not dress up in clown outfits or soldier costumes. Anyone in court, and counsel in particular, will bow to the judge. That is because he is a representative of the Sovereign.

(21)(2)

Anonymous

Yes, Burnett clearly does say that wigs provide a way for judges to hide. He says exactly that. That is why it would be bizarre to suggest otherwise. You are correct that judges wear neither clown outfit nor soldier costume in court. It would look daft if they did in the same way that wearing a wig looks daft. Not everyone in court bows. You bow to judge’s syrup of fig, we don’t. Wearing a daft wig doesn’t make one a representative of the crown.

Anon

No, Burnett is not saying that judges are hiding. It would be bizarre for him to suggest that, which is why he does not do so. Hence it is bizarre and false to suggest that he is suggesting that. He is in fact saying that judges use wigs to depersonalise themselves. Judges do not dress up in clown outfits or soldier costumes. Anyone in court, and counsel in particular, will bow to the judge. That is because he is a representative of the Sovereign.

Anonymous

Yes, Burnett clearly does indeed say that wigs provide a way for judges to hide. He says exactly that. That is why it would be bizarre to suggest otherwise. You are correct that judges wear neither clown outfit nor soldier costume in court. It would look daft if they did in the same way that wearing a wig looks daft. Not everyone in court bows. You bow to judge’s syrup of fig, we don’t. Wearing a daft wig doesn’t make one a representative of the crown.

Anon

No, Burnett is not saying that judges are hiding. It would be bizarre for him to suggest that, which is why he does not do so. Hence it is bizarre and false to suggest that he is suggesting that. He is in fact saying that judges use wigs to depersonalise themselves. Judges do not dress up in clown outfits or soldier costumes. Anyone in court, and counsel in particular, will bow to the judge. That is because he is a representative of the Crown.

Anonymous

Yes, Burnett is clearly saying that wigs provide a way for judges to hide. He says exactly that. That is why it would be bizarre to suggest otherwise. You are correct that judges wear neither clown outfit nor soldier costume in court. It would look daft if they did in the same way that wearing a wig looks daft. Not everyone in court bows. You bow to judge’s syrup of fig, we don’t. Wearing a daft wig doesn’t make one a representative of the crown.

Anonymous

No, Burnett is not saying that judges are hiding. It would be bizarre for him to suggest that, which is why he does not do so. Hence it is bizarre and false to suggest that he is suggesting that. He is, in fact, saying that judges use wigs to depersonalise themselves. Judges do not dress up in clown outfits or soldier costumes. Anyone in court, and counsel in particular, will bow to the judge. That is because he is a representative of the Crown.

Anonymous

Yes, Burnett was clearly saying that wigs provide a way for judges to hide. He says exactly that. That is why it would be bizarre to suggest otherwise. You are correct that judges wear neither clown outfit nor soldier costume in court. It would look daft if they did in the same way that wearing a wig looks daft. Not everyone in court bows. You bow to judge’s syrup of fig, we don’t. Wearing a daft wig doesn’t make one a representative of the crown.

anonymous

Nov 24 2020 11:15am: “Wearing a daft wig doesn’t make one a representative of the crown”. Correct: the terms of a judge’s Letters Patent make a him a representative of the Crown.

(21)(1)

Anonymous

It is correct that wearing a daft wig doesn’t make one a representative of the crown. It is incorrect that all judges are appointed via Letters Patent – most aren’t. Very important to be precise when trying to use technical terms.

Lord

The terms of judges’ Letters Patent or Warrant of Appointment make them representatives of the Crown.

Anonymous

But most most judges aren’t appointed via Letters Patent. Very important to be precise when trying to be technical.

Jack

Most judges are appointed by Letters Patent.

Anonymous

Most judges ain’t. Very important to be precise when trying to be technical.

Jez

Nov 24 2020 10:16am: “Dressing up in wigs, clown outfits, or soldier costumes makes judges look daft”: judges do not dress in clown outfits or soldier costumes.

(16)(1)

Jez

because doing so would make them look daft in the same way that wearing a silly wig does.

(2)(14)

Anon

The suggestion that wigs make judges look daft is as silly as suggesting that judges dress in clown outfits or soldier costumes.

(13)(0)

Anon

but actually wearing wigs is as daft as it would be if judges dressed in clown outfits or soldier costumes.

Anon

Yes. Nov 24 2020 10:16am was silly to suggest that judges dress as clowns or soldiers.

Anonymous

What is silly is a judge with a poodle on their head.

anon

Nov 24 2020 1:00pm: yes, it would be silly for a judge to wear a poodle on his head. But judges do not wear poodles on their heads. They wear wigs.

Anonymous

Wigs which look like poodles. Which is silly.

Caz

The wearing of wigs in court is as silly as dressing up as a clown or a Roman soldier would be.

(1)(11)

anonymous

Dressing up as a clown is not silly if you are a clown, nor was it silly for a Roman soldier to dress up as a Roman soldier. Following the logic of your argument, therefore, it is not silly for judges to wear wigs. But it is not silly for judges to wear wigs anyway because, as Lord Burnett says, it depersonalises them in the discharge of their obligations as a representative of the Crown.

(8)(1)

Anonymous

Dressing up as a clown or a Roman soldier is silly if you are a judge, as is wearing a wig. Especially if its meant to be a disguise, as Lord Burnett says.

(0)(6)

anonymous

Nov 24 2020 12:57pm: “Dressing up as a clown or a Roman soldier is silly if you are a judge”. But you would not dress up as a clown or a Roman soldier if you are a judge. Judges do not dress up as clowns or Roman soldiers. Clowns dress as clowns and Roman soldiers dressed as Roman soldiers. Judges dress as judges. Which means wearing a wig. And wigs do not look silly. What is silly is to suggest that judges dress as clowns and Roman soldiers.

(19)(0)

Anonymous

A judge wearing a wig looks as illy as a judge dressed as a clown or a Roman soldier.

Anonymous

The suggestion that wigs don’t look daft is toilet.

(0)(8)

Anon

It is toilet to suggest that wigs look daft.

(16)(0)

Anonymous

It is true to suggest wigs look daft. Toilet to suggest otherwise.

(0)(7)

Anon

Toilet that wigs look daft. They lend dignity and anonymity.

(5)(2)

Actual barrister and part time judge

The Lord Chief is obviously talking about the depersonalising effect of wigs. I agree with that. I sit as a Recorder and welcome the depersonalising effect and relative anonymity which wigs and indeed gowns bring about. Mankind has used uniforms for such purposes since the dawn of time.

Picking up on the bowing point, everyone should bow when the judge enters and leaves court, and lawyers present always do so. This is in recognition of the judge as the Queen’s representative.

(4)(5)

Jill

Most judges aren’t appointed by Letters Patent. And wigs just look daft nowadays.

(0)(7)

Comments are closed.

Related Stories