Could we soon be saying bye-bye to barristers’ wigs?

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By Rhys Duncan on

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Bar Council working group reviews future of court dress


Senior judicial figures are reportedly in talks with the Bar Council about scrapping barristers’ wigs, which could mark the end of the historic headwear.

The requirement for some barristers to wear the traditional horsehair has come under fire from a number of lawyers who say it discriminates against people with Afro-Caribbean hair, The Telegraph reports.

“Following questions from barristers about wigs and hair discrimination, the Bar Council set up a working group to consider court dress in the context of all protected characteristics,” the Bar Council said.

“The findings of the working group are currently being discussed with the judiciary as part of our regular dialogue on equality and diversity matters,” it added.

Since changes in 2007 not all barristers have been required to wear wigs, with the rules excluding family, civil, and Supreme Court cases.

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A spokesman for the judiciary is reported as saying that, “senior judges are in active discussions with the Bar Council about the findings of their working group on court dress”.

“We welcome these discussions as part of our continuing joint work on diversity and inclusion in the legal profession,” they added.

Back in 2022, Garden Court barrister Professor Leslie Thomas QC branded wigs a “ridiculous anachronism” that has no place in a “modern legal profession”, adding that they “reek of privilege and exclusion”.

“I cannot see the point of them” he continued, before noting that the cost of a wig could be “disconcerting to less well-off members of society who wish to enter the profession”.

As yet, however, no decision has been made.

Are you for or against the scrapping of barristers’ wigs? Let us know in the comments below.

34 Comments

Alan

It’s a joke really, isn’t it? Not allowed any pride or pomp in what we do, just a race to the lowest common denominator because some people might feel upset.

Civil counsel who kind of likes them

Solid post and views. Thanks for sharing your experiences.

alan's mum

alan, we know who you mean by saying ‘some people’. You’re getting overtired. Come in and do some of your colouring in books for a while so you can calm down a bit. I’ll get you a nice glass of milk.

Gus the Snedger (back for one night only!) 👃

🎶🎤 Bye-bye wiggy

Wiggy good-bye…

Bye-bye wiggy don’t make me cry…

You’re the horse-hair and I wore it…

In a black tin, there I stored it…[ooooh]…

🎶

Gus’s Roadie

🎶 Oh wiggy wiggy….

….make me look piggy…

Gammon I am…

With a face like a ham…

🎶

Anonymous Barrister

I’ve always been of two minds about the wigs.

I’m in a progressive and diverse Chambers and this year we (like many others) asked our pupillage candidates about keeping wigs.

It tended to be the white candidates who wanted to ditch them and the minority candidates who wanted to keep them.

(And before you ask, all our offers went to minority candidates as they were the best of the applicants).

Wigmore

What a complete load of rubbish. I know several Afro-Caribbean members of the Bar and they have never once complained that a wig is incompatible with their hair any more than women with big hairstyles. They just tie or clip it back.

The wig and robe is important. It anonymises advocates, provides a level of seriousness to proceedings, and stops fashion statements being made by counsel (particularly in jury trials). Leslie Thomas KC’s comments on wigs are rather absurd given the entire exclusionary nature of the Bar evidenced by the astonishingly small acceptance rates and the disproportionate number of Oxbridge graduates. A wig does very little to impact upon or increase the exclusion already present at the Bar.

I am, however, a big fan of senior members of chambers contributing toward a newly qualified barristers wig, or at very least providing a loan to be paid back on receipt of their first significant brief fee. Circa £600 fresh out of the gates is a lot.

Civil counsel who kind of likes them

Solid post and views. Thanks for sharing your experiences.

Employment Junior

For the love of god, please just keep them long enough so I can get to wear this damn thing at least once in the Court of Appeal.

Bob

I appear regularly in the New South Wales Court of Appeal. We don’t wear them there. We do wear them in the New South Wales Court of Criminal Appeal, where I also appear regularly.

I hate them and want them gone.

Genuine question without agenda

If this is correct, why do so many Common Law jurisdictions in Africa
and the Caribbean retain them for use in Court?

News from 2054

Fresh in from the Tardis…

Compulsory suits to be abolished in Court.

“I cannot see the point of them” he continued, before noting that the cost of a suit could be “disconcerting to less well-off members of society who wish to enter the profession”.

News from 2124

Compulsory clothes to be abolished in Court.

“I cannot see the point of them” he continued, before noting that the cost of clothes could be “disconcerting to less well-off members of society who wish to enter the profession”.

Scouser of Counsel

I’m not usually a fan of the wig but if the objection is the cost, I’m sure every Chambers could afford each new pupil a brand new wig and gown as a welcome gift.

Perhaps we could start a new tradition there?

Also, it’s inaccurate to suggest that they have been abolished in civil and family proceedings. In family they are only worn in contested divorces, which are rare, but in the County Courts they tend to be worn for Fast Track and Multi-Track trials as well as for appeals.

There are regional variations, mind.

Al

“There are regional variations, mind.”

Indeed. I got all robed up for a hearing out of London. The usher came out and said “We don’t really do that here.”. The judge afterwards explained “If you robe up, I have to robe up, and I don’t want to.” Which was a refreshing example of judicial clarity of reasoning.

I do quite like robing up on my rare visits to court. I think it just puts you in the right mind set.

Also, back when I did crimlaw the anonymity aspect really is a factor. Been a few occasions on railway station platforms when I’ve been very glad certain people appeared not to recognise me.

Slightly OT but I’m a proper geek of a barrister

Regional variations are part of the fun of our system.

It’s the same with Police forces.

Some have uniforms with baseball caps and fleeces so the officers look like they work in Burger King (other fast food restaurants are available).

Some have an all black swat-style uniform but keep the traditional helmets, bowlers and flat caps so you know they’re actually police, and a few keep the traditional shirts and ties look.

In some areas they even wear their old fashioned shiny button tunics to court!

Al

In my baby barristering days I used to love City of London Mags. The bench would robe (apparently the Monarch can sit so they keep a room for them just in case they ever turn up). And the security is (was?) provided by City of London Police who used to wear their posh dress uniforms. And they were so nice.

Once I got asked to pop down to the cells. My client had OD’d. I was surprised as to how he’d even managed that.

“We asked if he had anything on him he shouldn’t have; and he said no.”

They were nice enough to convey to the bench that “The defendant has taken ill and had to go to hospital.”

Tired of itchy horsehair

I agree with Professor Leslie Thomas KC. Totally anachronistic and another thing to have to carry to court when likely already swamped with papers. They are itchy, uncomfortable and, on most people, just look ridiculous.

I do agree with the minor anonymity angle in terms of criminal proceedings. I do think that it is helpful to appear as an ‘advocate’ rather than an ‘individual’. They do also, surprisingly, add a degree of anonymity and reps are not then so easily recognised outside of court.

The current basis for proposed discontinued use is clearly ridiculous. But I am in favour of ditching them in respect of civil proceedings and appeals in all areas, but to retain them in criminal proceedings in the Crown Court.

Barrister from a non-traditional background

As a criminal barrister from a non-traditional background I strongly favour retaining the wig and gown in Court as it stops me from being mistaken for a defendant.

I’d go one step further and have counsel and solicitors wear a collar/ collarette and bands to the Magistrates’ Court for the same reason.

No mistake then.

Anon

The narcissist always has to stand out from others.

Nicker

Actually, a narcissist would be more likely to stand out in a flashy suit/ dress than at present when literally every other barrister at Court is forced to wear the same uniform, which is a great leveller.

The most vocal against the wig are older white male virtue signallers, followed by a tiny minority within a minority of BME revolutionary types.

Most female and BME counsel that I have spoken to want to keep the wig and gown as they have worked bloody hard to earn the right to be recognised as counsel, often against the odds, in a system which is hard to break into.

Rev. O’Lution

Oh yes? Name them?

Hands off me horse hair ye varlet.

I hope not.

I love getting to use “Mel Gibson”.

More of a case I think, of embracing what makes us a great legal institution, the traditions are an important part of that, and I like them.

Just my 3 pence on it though.

Scott

If I were in the dock, i’d refuse to answer a barrister who didn’t look anonymous. It would make me think they had a bit too much personality in that situation and not enough nouse

Female ethnic minority barrister

As a female non-white barrister from a non-traditional background, I love the wigs – I think it has the effect of levelling the playing field in court so that people see all the barristers in the same way rather than focusing on their differences – I think that is the “point” of the wig, which Leslie Thomas KC apparently cannot see. For someone like me, who struggles to “look” like the public’s imagined quintessential barrister (white, male), the wig is very helpful in making clear who and what I am in court. I think the effect of ditching wigs would potentially be to disadvantage female and ethnic minority barristers in favour of white men who look like the traditional 19th century barrister. I am the first member of my family ever to have gone to higher education – I have worked hard for the right to wear the wig and I am proud to do so. I think it would be hugely unfair for everyone to lose the right to wear their wigs because a very small number of people find it hot and annoying – there is nothing culturally insensitive about a wig, any more than there is anything culturally insensitive about a suit (traditional European dress) – should we all turn up to court in the traditional dress of our ancestors then? And wouldn’t just draw even more attention to the differences between us (making it more likely that those ethnic minority backgrounds are likely to be seen as different and inferior to their white equivalents). This is all absurd and I can’t believe anyone is taking it seriously.

Practising Barrister

If I understand correctly, wigs became a fashion trend among the European aristocracy when King Louis (insert Roman numerals) wore a wig to cover his balding. Balding was believed to be a sign of syphilis. This French fashion trend spread to the aristocracy among Europe eventually coming to the courts. I think I can really pass on this tradition.
Requiring someone to wear a horsehair wig to address a court is weird.
Simple robes and standard business attire would do. For those who say they need it for security reasons, they do not offer much ballistic protection, especially when the judge says your name in the middle of court and you are on record.

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