Wednesday, 22 October 2008

WRONG: Judges have to wear wigs and gowns

Court dress, like all aspects of the law, is governed by ancient and complicated traditions. In the case of wigs and gowns, it dates back to the 17th century, when every gentlemen worth the name owned enough wigs and face-paint to shame a transvestite. The make-up, based on toxic lead oxide, actually caused hair loss, making wigs as much a necessity as a fashion statement. A wealthy nobleman wouldn’t have been seen dead without his Full-Bottomed periwig or a dildo (don’t get excited, a “dildo” was the name for a curly, detachable pigtail).

The rules for what judges should wear were codified officially in the Judges’ Rules of 1635.

According to Thomas Woodcock in his exhaustive history Legal Habits, the fashion for wigs was dying out in other professions by the 19th century, but the Full-Bottomed and Tie wigs remained in use by judges and barristers respectively (in England and Wales – the uniform and general legal tradition are slightly different in Scotland). The law moves very slowly, and is, by nature, conservative; one 19th-century judge, according to Woodcock, refused to recognise his own son at the bar because he was wearing a new style of wig.

Small alterations to the dress code have been introduced by daring judges over the years since the Rules were published, but more substantial changes only took place on the creation of new courts, such when the Courts of Chancery, the Admiralty, Probate and Matrimonial Causes were combined to form the High Court in 1873-5[2]. Even then, the changes tended to affect only the colour and cut of gown.

Today, judges are not, in fact, obliged to wear the wig and gown. In hot weather, or when children are on trial or acting as witnesses (and are likely to be intimidated), court dress may be dispensed with at the judge’s discretion.

The Lord Chancellor commissioned a report on the possibility of radically changing court dress in 2003[3], but its findings were not acted upon. It seems the gravitas conveyed by the historical costume (embodying as it does centuries of tradition) aren’t considered worth sacrificing simply for modernisation’s sake. All societies make a distinction between “sacred” and “profane” contexts, with costume historically acting as a key indication of the difference between the two. If you doubt its significance, ask yourself this: does the Pope wear a funny hat?

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