Friday, 23 October 2015

Wigs and Gowns

On Rob Rinder's Radio 5 programme,  Raising the Bar this week, the participants discussed wearing wigs and gowns in the Crown Court. They were in favour of this court dress. The reasons given included that they:

- Equalise the barristers in the eyes of the jury : a particular advantage to the young barrister.

- Put the barristers on a more equal footing with the judge.

- Seem to encourage witnesses to be more honest than they might otherwise (it is sometimes said that court dress emphasises the "majesty of the law").

- Provide a uniform for barristers that helps them focus on the work they have to do - like putting on a football kit before going out to compete in a match.

- Avoid the need for barristers to worry about what they have to wear at court, and avoid disadvantage to the sartorially challenged.

I am happy to leave it to the criminal bar to decide what they should wear in the Crown Court. But do these arguments for preserving court dress work for civil cases in the County Court and High Court?

Currently, in civil trials, barristers do wear wigs, although some judges do not insist on it in fast track trials.

In (the vast majority of) such cases there is no jury. The only person to persuade is the single judge. That judge wears a gown but not a wig.

Judges are trained and experienced in deciding cases on the evidence, not on how an advocate is dressed.

As for worrying about what to wear, the convention is for both men and women is to wear a dark suit - I doubt many would have sleepless nights anxiously deliberating whether to wear the dark grey or the dark blue!

I have felt some discomfort seeing criminal barristers protesting about cuts wearing their court dress. Firstly, because I was always brought up not to wear court dress outside court! Secondly because it creates a separation, "us and them", when the bar is seeking public support for its position. It just looks rather elitist, in my view.

In civil cases I do not see the need for barristers to rely on a wig and gown for authority or equality. Rather than bringing solemnity to the occasion, I wonder whether they might give the impression that proceedings are a game, or a piece of theatre - the barristers are merely playing a role.

Court dress is a lovely idiosyncrasy: a tradition cherished by many. But it is very odd for men and women to have to put on a horse-hair wig in order to make a legal argument or cross-examine a witness in a civil claim. Some would keep the tradition. Others would keep the gown but take off the wig. For my part, for civil cases, I would hang up the gown but put the wig back in its tin for good.


  1. But if wigs and gowns encourage non-lawyer participants to take civil hearings more seriously, what then? I always remember a former colleague - who never minced words - describing the difference between trial and arbitration: "It depends whether you want your case heard by a proper judge or an old fart in a suit". Absent the dressing up, don't we just come across as a bunch of toffs?

  2. I shudder when I see people in scrubs outside (or on the tube) - awful! However I think a bigger infection hazard would be a wig. In fact it was wearing a wig in a moot that most put me off a career at the Bar. Can I swab a selection & write up my findings for christmas BMJ? wig v lanyard: too niche?

    concerned medic