Has horsehair had its day?
A top silk has called on the barristers’ profession to do away with wigs, arguing the historic hairpieces “reek of privilege and exclusion”.
In a comment piece for the Mail+, Garden Court barrister Professor Leslie Thomas QC brands the horsehair wig a “ridiculous anachronism” that has no place in a “modern legal profession”.
The civil liberties specialist explains the itchy wigs are particularly uncomfortable during hot summer days in court and that the threadbare ones worn by some of his experienced colleagues — often seen as a “badge of honour” — can be a distracting to a jury. “I cannot see the point of them,” Thomas QC says.
Instantly recognisable to lawyers and laypersons alike, barristers have worn wigs crafted from horsehair since the 17th century. Humphrey Ravenscroft of Ede & Ravenscroft, one of London’s oldest tailors and court outfitters, patented a wig that is still in use today.
They’re not cheap either. A pupil barrister will fork out as much as £700 for their first wig, which according to Thomas QC, is “disconcerting to less well-off members of society who wish to enter the profession”. The experienced barrister also notes they’re not practical for certain cultures or religions and hairstyles — although he notes some barristers can receive dispensations from wearing them.
Thomas QC, who was called to the bar in 1988 and took silk in 2014, also doesn’t buy into the argument that they help to anonymise lawyers. It “baffles me”, he writes. “[T]he wig doesn’t cover your face.”
There have been steps taken to modernise the wig in recent years.
Samuel March, a junior barrister at 9 King’s Bench Walk, developed what is believed to be the country’s first vegan wig after discovering none of the main legal dressers in the UK supplied them. Elsewhere, Doughty Street Chambers barristers Karlia Lykourgou and Maryam Mir launched a range of court-friendly hijabs for Muslim lawyers who struggle to find appropriate legal headwear.
Wrapping up his argument, the Garden Court barrister points to the highest bench in the land — the Supreme Court — and its lack of horsehair, and urges the profession to look at other jurisdictions such as Australia and New Zealand, where wigs are no longer part of day-to-day court attire.
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