YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


In Britain, wigs may be cast out of the courts

The historical uniform may be scrapped amid concerns that it intimidates the public.

January 07, 2007|David Stringer | Associated Press

LONDON — In horsehair wigs of tight, white curls, Britain's judges and lawyers have stalked oak-paneled courtrooms since the 17th century. But the head of the judiciary is considering scrapping the historical uniform.

Baron Nicholas Phillips, lord chief justice of England and Wales, is expected to soon decide following a study intended to examine concerns that wigs and gowns intimidate the public.

His office confirmed Friday that he may ditch the traditional costume altogether -- meaning red and black silk gowns, gold braided waistcoats, wigs and colored ceremonial sashes could be consigned to history.

Lawyers believe the latest review will conclude that a less formal style should be adopted for most cases.

John Cooper, a London criminal lawyer and a member of the Bar Council -- the authority representing senior lawyers -- said lawyers expected the wig and gown to be preserved only for criminal matters. "The weight of opinion among barristers is to see the attire retained for criminal cases, and the public agree -- it is one of the only things they actually like about the legal profession," he said.

Lawyers in Britain have worn gowns and wigs in court since the late 17th century, though they stopped wearing perukes -- a long, shoulder-length style -- on a daily basis in the 1840s, opting for a shorter, less elaborate version. The attire of High Court judges, who hear the most serious cases, dates to the 14th century, when cloaks were fashioned from ermine, taffeta or silk.

Strict rules govern the color of gowns, with senior judges using red for criminal cases and black for civil or family court work. In summer, some judges can dress in blue or violet, but all must wear scarlet on Red Letter Days, which include the monarch's birthday and some religious festivals.

To pay for the opulent wardrobe, a High Court judge is given an allowance of about $30,000 and a circuit judge gets about $20,000. Wigs can cost as much as $1,600, while long perukes cost about $4,000 each.

Before his appointment, Phillips described courtroom dress as ridiculous, suggesting Britain should follow France in adopting a simple black gown and dispensing with wigs.

In 2002, a government-ordered Opinion Research Corporation poll of 2,000 people found 42% favored retaining traditional dress for all lawyers and judges. Support for wigs in criminal cases was stronger; 27% said judges in such cases should go bareheaded. The poll had a margin of error of plus or minus 2 percentage points.

Wigs have disappeared from other arenas. The speaker of the House of Commons dispensed with a peruke in 1992, and the Lord Chancellor stop wearing a wig when presiding in the House of Lords in 1998. The Law Lords, Britain's supreme appeal judges, do not wear wigs.

Cooper said many lawyers believed their attire had a practical purpose. Some lawyers in serious criminal cases, he said, welcomed the partial disguise provided by a wig and gown in the belief they were unlikely to be recognized by a defendant outside court. Traditional dress also ensured jurors would not be influenced by a lawyer's clothing, Cooper said.

"In America, for example, a trial advocate will take a look at a jury and, if they are dressed in suits and ties, the advocate will dress in a suit and tie -- in an attempt to win favor," he said. "Our system maintains parity between barristers."

Los Angeles Times Articles