In the Media

Judges to hang up gowns and wigs

PUBLISHED September 26, 2006

THE wigs and gowns worn by judges and advocates for more than 300 years seem destined for the back of the wardrobe.
Lord Phillips of Worth Matravers, the Lord Chief Justice, has begun a consultation exercise with the judiciary that is expected to see the traditional horsehair headgear scrapped in civil, commercial cases and family cases ? although kept in the criminal courts.
The debate has been a long one. But this time a decision is likely to result. When he took office last year, Lord Phillips, who has declared his dislike of his own five seasonal costumes, made clear that he would like to do away with wigs and gowns for civil and commercial cases. He would favour a simple European-style robe and collar or foulard.
Pressure has been growing from the Law Society and the Solicitors? Association of Higher Court Advocates: solicitor-advocates are now allowed to qualify to take cases in the higher courts yet still barred from wearing wigs. The solicitor-
advocates also wear different black gowns, and argue that there should be parit:y either no wigs at all, or all advocates should be allowed to wear wigs, be they barristers or solicitors.
This year, Kevin Martin, then-president of the Law Society of England and Wales, wrote to Lord Phillips saying that the present rules made solicitors feel like second-class citizens. ?There are instances of clients indicating that they do not mind who the advocate is as long as they wear a wig.?
There is also wide support among the 18 High Court judges who sit in the Commercial Court for scrapping of court dress. Mr Justice Aikens, who until recently was the judge in charge of the court, told The Times this month: ?If there?s any opportunity not to wear them, we take it.?
Clients in many commercial disputes are from abroad and so unused to judges and lawyers in 17th-century costume.
Under the Constitutional Reform Act 2005, the issue is for neither the Lord Chancellor nor his department but one for the judiciary. Judges at all levels are being consulted and a decision is expected by Christmas.
In recent years there have been several consultations, but with views strongly divided no action has been taken. Some senior judges think that wigs confirm their fusty image. Yet in the early 1990s there was found to be wide public support for their retention.
Wigmakers will be sanguine at the prospect of declining demand for the barrister?s wig with its ?frizzed crown, below which are four rows of seven curls, then one row of four curls with one curl vertically between them, and two tails, looped and tied?. They say that the cost of making them is far higher than their price. And there is a thriving export market, with sales to parts of the English common law system.
Court fashion

Court Fashion
  • Until the 17th century, a lawyer was expected to appear in court with short hair and a beard 
     Wigs were first worn in court when, in Charles II?s reign, they became essential in polite society
  • Judges formally adopted wigs in 1685
  • Wigs went out of fashion in the reign of George III, but were still worn by bishops, coachmen and the legal profession
  • Judges wore full- bottomed wigs until the 1780s when the ?bob-wig?, with frizzed sides and a short tail at the back, was adopted for civil trials
  • The full-bottomed wig, used for criminal trials until the 1840s, is now reserved for ceremonial dress