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Wig edict turns heads in Britain

Civil jurists will forgo their curled horsehair pieces and don new robes starting this fall.

May 15, 2008|Kim Murphy | Times Staff Writer

LONDON — Britain has always been a place where, if someone asks, "Why?" and the answer is, "Because we've been doing it that way for the last 800 years," the conversation is pretty much over.

So it is perhaps not surprising that the idea of ending the practice of outfitting judges and lawyers in curled wigs and tassled gowns a la 1685 has not been met with enthusiasm.

British lawyers have been -- who would have thought it? -- arguing over the issue for the better part of the last 16 years, with a majority apparently in favor of keeping things exactly as they have always been.

With that in mind, Lord Chief Justice Nicholas Phillips figured that if he was going to take on 300 years of tradition, he'd better do it in style. This week, he unveiled the modern new robe that judges in the civil courts of England and Wales are expected to wear beginning in October -- minus the traditional wing collar and minus, oh so importantly, the venerable white horsehair wig.

Judges, barristers and solicitors will continue to sport traditional attire in criminal courts, where lawyers say it's important for defendants not to be judged by their advocates' suits. But even there, wigs may already be on a long slow road to ruin. "The stage is set for anarchy. Did no one tell his Lordship about Samson and Delilah?" the Times of London wondered.

The new continental-style outfit, featuring such innovations as pockets, snap fasteners and color-coded bands depending on the court, was conceived by celebrity fashion designer Betty Jackson.

The fashionistas so far have not been wowed.

"If humanizing the judicial profession was the aim of this makeover, it is interesting that Betty Jackson decided that the outfit best suited for this would be one that looks like something an alien android with menacing religious undertones would wear when waging war with Doctor Who," sniffed the Guardian’s deputy fashion editor, Hadley Freeman.

The Daily Mail juxtaposed a photo of a bareheaded Lord Phillips in the new robe next to a picture of actor Patrick Stewart in his Star Trek garb.

Lord Phillips, who says he is seeking to rid the public of any notion that judges are old-fashioned and out of touch, has acknowledged that not all jurists like the new outfit. But most do, he asserts, and he assumes the rest will get used to it.

Long ago, not everyone thought the heavy, hot, itchy head gear should be a fixture. "Who would have supposed that this grotesque ornament," former Lord Chancellor John Campbell wrote in 1845, "fit only for an African Chief, would be considered indispensably necessary for the administration of justice in the middle of the 19th century?"

The big question now is whether lawyers practicing in the civil courts can be persuaded to go along with the judges and also give up their wigs, which, in survey after survey, attorneys indicate they cherish as much as truth itself.

"Of all the recent consultations which have gone out within the legal profession, this one has had the highest response. So it shows how important this is to lawyers," said Tan Ikram, president of the London Criminal Courts Solicitors' Assn.

Criminal lawyers, he said, appreciate the "anonymity" afforded by everyone wearing the same $1,590 "forensic" (or "of the law") wig and gown.

"It's important in the sense that if you're prosecuting, or even defending, the color of your tie or the cut of your jacket matters not," Ikram said. "There are also issues of the formality of the occasion. You are in a courtroom, you are being questioned, you will tell the truth. . . . It is part of that historic symbolism of the state's authority."

The chief justice's new dress code for judges in the civil and family courts is not binding on lawyers, and the Bar Council is in the process of deciding how it will respond, said spokeswoman Samina Ansari.

"Our consultation showed the majority of those involved were in favor of keeping wigs as their uniform," she said. "But the debate seems to have moved on, and they need to look at reassessing their position on it."

Darren Horsman, a spokesman for the Royal Courts of Justice, said that in the wake of the policy direction for judges "it would be normal for [the lawyers] to follow."

Judges and lawyers already appear in normal business suits in most family law hearings held behind closed doors.

"The reason behind it is to make it more user-friendly for the client," said Helen Pidgeon, a family court lawyer. "If you're acting for individuals who are bringing cases under very trying circumstances, you want to make justice as accessible to them as possible."

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kim.murphy@latimes.com

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