In defence of the wig
12 February 1997
Clive Coleman is a barrister and principal lecturer at the Inns of Court School of Law. He is also author of BBC Radio 4's legal sitcom Chambers. Clive Coleman tells the Bar to keep its hair on - it's a matter of public concern
The signs are ominous. First an MP rises in the Commons to question the wearing of wigs in court, then the Lord Chancellor himself incites a debate on the wearing of the legal profession's sacred hairpiece.
The wig is in the dock. Forget Europe - there is every sign that wig-wearing could become the critical political battleground of this Parliament. If so, both main political parties appear to have been caught on the hop. What is Hague's position on wigs? Insiders say he is enthusiastic. Does this mark a return to conviction politics? And what of Labour? Full of reforming zeal, Peter Mandelson is grappling with appropriate slogans for the coming battle. "New Labour, New Hair Piece" and "Read My Lips, No False Follicles" are the current favourites.
Caught in the middle of this political battle, what can the Bar do to retain the indispensable wig? It must be utterly professional and defend the inalienable right of every practising barrister to dress up like an eighteenth century clergyman. If the public wants reasons as to why barristers wear wigs, the Bar must provide them. Here are just a few.
Wigs are a health and safety necessity. A fully briefed barrister can travel at speeds of up to two miles per hour (three with refreshers). A fall at that speed without the protective headgear could prove calamitous. This is known as the "Eggshell Skull Paul Daniels" rule. Under this rule a protective wig will prevent a lawyer from breaking his skull, though it will make him generally less attractive.
More importantly there is the psychological effect that the removal of wigs would have on barristers. "Wig dependency", to use the clinical term, is a little known and scarcely understood psychological condition which many barristers suffer from. The effect of a lump of animal hair worn on the head during the working week becomes so seductive that barristers will spend the weekend surreptitiously enticing family pets or small rodents into their wig tins. Afflicted barristers will make utterly convincing excuses to sneak off for short breaks on a Sunday afternoon, rush behind a garden shed and strap the captive furry animals to their scalp for the quick "wig fix" that they crave.
Wig dependency is currently under control, but if barristers are denied their wigs the numbers seeking "wig substitutes" will grow rapidly. Silver-haired hamsters will change hands on the black market for hundreds of pounds. The truly dependent will find ingenious excuses to appear in court with animals strapped to their heads. "May it please your honour, a head cold compels me to appear before you wearing an aged but recently shampooed vole."
Others will lose the will to carry on practising. Unable to wear their wigs they will drift into benign domesticity with their beloved former head coverings. Wigs will be kept in the corner of their rooms with a bowl of warm milk. Kindly barristers will be seen walking five or six wigs on leads through Lincoln's Inn, throwing the occasional but futile stick. Those somewhat more able to cope will, with some reluctance, turn their wigs into highly professional looking and extremely well paid tea cosys.
Then there is the environmental argument. Human beings lose most of their body heat through their heads. The barrister's wig acts as a natural insulator. Any increase in global warming in addition to harm ful emissions from barrister's mouths and the planet could find itself on the verge of a dangerous "courthouse effect".
Finally there is the spectre of wigs falling into the wrong hands. The lack of maintenance of wigs has created, in many of them, an explosive cocktail of micro-organisms. The stored DNA from a typical wig could be cloned to create a race of dinosaurs stalking the corridors of the Royal Courts of Justice. How would these beasts learn to co-exist with the lumbering dinosaurs currently stalking those corridors? The Bar should keep its hair on, the alternative is unthinkable.