Getting wiggy with it
17 March 2008
THE CASE AGAINST:
OFF WITH WIGS AND GOWNS
Dynamic, forward-looking and modern - the bar in the 21st century? On the issue of clothing, I don't think so. Backward-looking, inward-looking and clinging to the 18th century is closer to the mark.
In recent consultations of the bar by the Bar Council, the only issue that really excited individual barristers was whether or not wigs and gowns should be scrapped, altered or retained in civil proceedings.
The result, described by the Bar Council as overwhelming, was that around 65 per cent wish to retain the existing garb in the High Court and above, while fewer than half thought they should be retained in county courts.
What was not expressly asked was why wigs etc should be retained or scrapped. The only reason mentioned in the Bar Council's press release on the topic was "our traditions". But tradition is not a good enough answer: as the Department for Constitutional Affairs has said, the courts are not a tourist attraction.
Indeed, as half of the people coming to the bar today are women, the argument doesn't hold water. Wigs and gowns were traditionally strictly masculine dress. Equality does or should not mean the obligation to dress like a man - particularly an 18th century man. Although I suppose we should be grateful we are no longer required to appear with a ruff.
Everyone is equal before the law and should be seen to be so. Drawing such a visible distinction between different persons addressing the court - ie silks, juniors, solicitors, legal executives and litigants in person - seems to me to be unnecessary, discriminatory and perhaps even intimidating for litigants in person.
In these days of skeleton arguments, the court knows the status of the persons appearing before it - there is no need to rub anyone's nose in it. Indeed, now that solicitor-advocates may wear wigs as well as gowns, they are no longer as distinguishing as they used to be. Solicitor-advocates do not necessarily wish to wear wigs and gowns for any reason other than the need to be seen to be on an equal footing to the bar.
Of course, the law is important and should be held in respect. However, a judge sitting in an elevated position behind an imposing bench with the royal coat of arms behind him (or her) is a sufficiently dignified and solemn sight. The court does not require advocates in fancy dress to add to its authority. It is not our style of dress that makes English justice respected around the world, but the ability, independence and integrity of our judges and advocates.
So do some barristers want to retain their garb for reasons of status and self-importance? Wearing a wig allows them to feel more worthy or superior, separated, with the judge, from the hoi polloi. This attitude irritates solicitors and does not assist in dispelling the notion that we have a tendency to pomposity. It is a sense of being a member of an exclusive club. How can we say on the one hand that the judiciary and the bar should more closely reflect the society in which we now live, while at the same time insisting on dressing as if it were the 18th or 19th century? We say we wish to widen access, but require new practitioners to spend nearly £700 on stuff and horsehair. Clothes do not make the man in this case. Competent counsel do not need fancy dress to enhance either ;their arguments or their status.
Jane Evans-Gordon is a member of the Chancery Bar Association and a barrister at New Square Chambers, Lincoln's Inn
THE CASE FOR:
WIGS ARE GOOD FOR YOU
If the bar is not going to follow the judges in switching to a viscose kaftan (as one of them has described it), what should we do? Stick to wig, bands and gown is the obvious answer, with all respect to those who think differently. Wearing our own kit we identify ourselves to the public and each other.
For few images are more distinct than the barrister dressed for court - instantly recognisable in this country by almost anyone. Long before litigants have dreamt of having to employ one themselves, they will have seen barristers on television, in films, in sketches and, if we are careless enough to let ourselves be snapped (some of us are very careless), in photographs.
Then they get their own and they know what they're getting because they've seen one before. There is nothing unusual in a special dress for a special function - the outward and visible sign of a qualification to perform it. Clergy, soldiers and chefs all do jobs that could be done perfectly well by someone in jeans and a T-shirt. But they have the sense to realise that being seen for what they are carries advantages. Solicitor-advocates want to wear the same outfit for good reason, not to get rid of it. Advertisers spend fortunes on building up an image that we get for nothing as an adjunct of the call to the bar.
And which of us on call night failed to sense, when we first put it all on and self-consciously posed in it, that we were becoming part of a profession with a long history and a sense of fellowship? Of course such things can exist without a uniform, but a uniform fosters them - there is more to it than stuff and horsehair, an arbitrary selection of dead fashions. Surely, too, the garb helps to attract recruits to the bar - not because they fancy dressing up, but because the uniform focuses the idea of the function. You become a barrister in a more public and overt way than you become an accountant or a surveyor.
It is hard to believe any useful purpose could be served by getting rid of wigs and gowns. It is ludicrous to suppose that taking a wig off will suddenly make us all user-friendly and approachable. If we fail to do it with a wig on, we're not likely to do it without. It might be different if there were some public demand for a change, but transparently there is not. One or two barristers and judges have bees in their bonnets about court dress - they should be told politely to keep it to themselves. The interests of the public and our own interests are served by our continuing to look like barristers.
Nicholas Le Poidevin is a member of the Chancery Bar Association and a barrister at New Square Chambers, Lincoln's Inn