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BARRISTERS in the Irish Republic have voted by a narrow majority to cut the rule obliging them to wear wigs in court and make the matter optional.
The decision, taken in a secret postal ballot of the country's 1,000 barristers, is designed to pre-empt a Courts Bill being prepared by Irish Justice Minister Nora Owen, which proposes an outright ban on wearing wigs in court.
By making the concession now, the profession is hoping it will be allowed to continue to regulate its own affairs.
The wig issue has provoked a lively public debate, with politicians arguing that the headgear is outdated, elitist and tends to intimidate. Traditionalists say the wigs enhance the image and authority of the barrister in court.
But the result of the Irish vote suggests many are not interested in the issue, or are fed up with it. A total of 389 - over a third of the Irish Bar membership - abstained. There were 283 votes in favour of making wigs optional and 252 against.
It is now up to each barrister to decide whether it is in his or her client's interest to wear full dress. Irish Bar sources say criminal Bar members will opt to continue wearing wigs, part of the mandatory court dress since the early 18th century.
The Irish Justice Minister, who must approve any change in court rules, will have the final word and could still insist on a total ban.
Bar Council chair James Nugent called the outcome of the vote a "progressive move". But he is critical of the months spent debating the issue at a time of huge court backlogs.