Marthe Kielland Rossaak discusses why Barrister wigs are still worn in court.
During one of my mini-pupillages (don’t ask me why the weird name for a week-long placement) with barristers’ chambers, I was observing a case at the Old Bailey, the Central Criminal Court in London.
I was sitting at the back row, behind the prosecution team I was shadowing, and the court room was crowded with white barristers and their wigs (and some black security guards along with the black defendants in the dock (don’t call me the racist for pointing out the colour gap in British society). Some of the female barristers were constantly fixing their hair to make sure the wig would sit neatly on top. And I must say, observing these highly ranked professionals at the peaks of their careers, wearing a combed and curled creation of horse hair on top of their gravely serious faces, feels rather odd. So what is the deal with the wigs?
“This item was apparently fashionable, worn by people everywhere”
Of course, like almost all other things in the barrister profession, the wigs belong to a time-honoured tradition. In 1660, this item was apparently fashionable, worn by people everywhere. And when this fashion trend died off, lawyers and judges did not quite catch this, and have continued to wear them since. In South Australia, however, they started wearing the wig in courts around the 1850s. Obviously, fashions did not move very fast at that time, without the world wide web and snapchat.
Arguably, the wig respects and maintains the tradition of the law and the courts, and deflects the personal attention from the judges or barristers. It is also argued that they bring authority, formality and dignity to court proceedings. But, I’m thinking… I used to own two horses back home in Norway. One of them, Liswilliam Clover (for those wondering), was white and had a tail that would be perfect for a barrister’s wig. If I had cut the hair of her tail, curled it into tight ringlets and put it on my head, would that bring me authority and dignity? It seems very strange that the most respected Queen’s Counsels of the United Kingdom could have worn my horse’s tail on their head while at work.
“If I had cut the hair of her tail, curled it in to tight ringlets and put it on my head, would that bring me authority?”
Apparently, there are no other reasons for barristers and judges to wear wigs, except for tradition. No other profession uses anything remotely similar. Maybe others followed the fashions a bit better in the 17th century… Some say that the gowns signify that “justice is being done”. But, relying on curled horse hair to achieve justice won’t really save the world, will it? It may serve very well to separate the looks barristers and judges from the defendants, witnesses and jurors, but is this not fairly achieved with the long gown? It has a slight resemblance to the pope’s gown, except that it’s black, and usually worn quite out of place and hanging off of one shoulder, revealing the actually nice classy suit worn underneath. Now, there’s at least a hint of formality!
This is the fourth article in a weekly column on current issues and topics of general knowledge and interest, run by Marthe Rossaak. If you are interested in contributing, please email your draft to firstname.lastname@example.org