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Barristers - wigs
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Hundreds of years of use

For hundreds of years headgear of some kind has been worn in court. In early Tudor times it was a black flat bonnet or cap.

Lawyers and judges started wearing wigs around 1680. For 150 year the legal wig was usually of powdered white or grey hair.

In 1822, Humphrey Ravenscroft invented a legal wig made of whitish-grey horsehair that did not need frizzing, curling, perfuming or powdering.


Black cap for capital punishment

Then came the square cap. Right up to the permanent abolition of capital punishment in 1969 judges wore a form of this black cap, on top of their wigs, when passing sentence of death. Picture of two judges

Wigs and fashion

The word wig is short for periwig, derived from the French word for a wig, perruque.

Fashion conscious courtiers tried to outdo one another with the size of their wigs.


Even to this day, a person who is of particular importance, or thinks he is, is called a ‘bigwig’.


By 1680 most judges and barristers wore wigs in court; they were simply following the fashion of the day.  At that time they signified wealth and status.


Initially, judges thought the wigs were “coxcombical” (flashy as worn by dandy) and so didn’t allow young advocates to plead in them. But the wigs gradually became more accepted and stuck as a mode of court dress.


Women barristers need to adjust their hair style to accommodate their wig.


Wigs, like hats come in sizes and have to be fitted.


Wigs and hygiene

At first they were made of human hair. People in debt would sell their hair to the wigmaker, and there was a macabre trade in the hair of the dead. 


It is thought that wigs had value because of head lice spread from unsanitary court rooms the wearer having a shaved head beneath his wig.  Court rooms in earlier centuries were decidedly smelly places and judges were in the custom of carrying a posy of flowers to hide the stench of the hapless court users.



Wigs are still worn in court in many other countries – well over twenty – including some with the hottest climates in the world.


Student barristers

On completing the Bar Vocational Course students are "called to the bar" in the dining hall of their Inn. Thereafter he/she will be in need of a wig. Picture of barrister's wigBeing called to the bar is the first stage of an entitlement to practice law, conditional on obtaining a practice certificate. 


They have to complete further "continuous professional development" and at least 12 months further training called pupillage .

Barristers from former colonial countries are required to wear wigs, and also have to travel to London to be "called", keep terms and receive some of their training.


Queen's Counsel garb

Senior barristers called Queen's Council (QCs) wear silk gowns and elaborate buttoned "jackets". Junior counsel wear a suit under their gown.


The Gown

Junior barristers have to purchase a full black gown made of cotton or modern fabric.  The design derives from the style of mourning gown adopted by the Bar following the death of Charles II in 1685.


The shirt

The shirt has a removable double-tabbed linen band that serves as a collar.  The tabs are said to represent the tablets of Moses. These are attached by collar studs to collarless shirts. At an investiture ceremony held at Middle Temple Hall on May 2, 1594, the then Lord Chief Justice advised new recruits about court dress.

Referring to the pair of linen "bands", suspended from a stiff collar, that counsel still wear in court, he said:

"These two tongues do signifie that as you should have one tongue for the rich for your fee, as a reward for your long studies and labours, so should you also have another tongue as ready without reward to defend the poor and oppressed."

Junior barristers

It is a signal of junior status that a young barrister will wear a bright new wig, to wear a well worn yellowing or greying wig will look incongruous. 


Barristers wear "tie-wigs," which cover half the head. Picture of bob wig

Judges wear smaller "bob-wigs". 





Picture of full wigCeremonial occasions

The only time barristers wear these long wigs in real cases is when the Queen's Counsel (leading counsel) accompanied by their junior counsel receive the speeches (judgments) of the Lords of Appeal in Ordinary at the bar of the House of Lords.


These cases are of profound importance and usually involve the establishing of legal principle, hence the ceremony. On ceremonial occasions, Queen's Counsel, judges, and members of the House of Lords wear a floppy, shoulder-length "spaniel wigs" which blow in the wind. 



Buying a wig

There is a small market in second-hand wigs cast by those who have failed to succeed in the profession.  Sometimes they are acquired from relatives who have retired from practise at the bar.

Figures from the MoJ show that a High Court judge's attire can amount to £14,920. This includes the cost of two long-haired scarlet robes and a silk alternative which cost £7,680.


The horsehair wig costs £1,295. Still included at £89 is a black cloth sentence cap, which judges used to put on to pass the death sentence.


Other items include court breeches with buckles at £665, court shoes and buckles at £235 and a black silk scarf at £320.  All paid for by the taxpayer. A virtual monopoly in the supply of barristers garb is held by Ede & Ravenscroft in Chancery Lane who require a £150 deposit for the rental of a standard £459 barrister's wig, due to thefts from the Inns of Court.



Construction and upkeep of wigs

The forensic wig requires no “maintenance” other than an occasional shake, and is usually kept in a dark steel box with red or blue trim when not on the barrister's head. 


The box in turn is kept in a bag, along with the gown and other bits and pieces. Most wigs last a lifetime, after many years they become discoloured and untidy, there is a point where a really battered wig is such a mess it requires replacing.
The wigs are made from white horsehair and are more correctly called "forensic" (of the law) wigs.   The basic design of a barrister's wig is a 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.


When wigs are not worn

Barristers appearing in Magistrates' Courts do not wear wigs.


Certain proceedings will stipulate how the barrister should dress, for example in "chambers" a barrister is not required to wear a gown and wig. Solicitors do not normally wear wigs.  Solicitor Queen's Counsel do, and since January 2007 solicitor-advocates have worn them in the same circumstances as barristers.  Solicitor-advocates wear all the forensic garb although their gowns are marginally shorter).

A wig does not have to be worn by a barrister who needs to wear a turban for religious reasons. 


Why barristers wear wigs

They also provide anonymity, not in the sense of providing a disguise or camouflage, but a distancing from personal involvement


The wig is an emblem of privilege, and young barristers are keen to retain them, senior members of the bar less so.  Wigs confer dignity and solemnity on court proceedings.


Lord Chancellor on the WoolsackSurprisingly, it is the clients and other regular court users who are most enthusiastic about retention.   They are hot in the summer and if the barrister has not got a good head of hair they can be itchy .  Barristers remove them at every opportunity, they are not comfortable. 

In the last few years the speaker of the House of Commons and more recently the Lord Chancellor have dispensed with wearing a wig in parliament, after centuries of tradition. 


So, why are they worn?  The dress code for barristers is laid down by the judges, a barrister improperly dressed will "not be seen" by a judge, and most importantly the judge will declare "I cannot hear you", no matter how loudly he is talking.


Some other 'traditions':
Barristers never shake hands either in court or when meeting socially.  The reasons are that it is a small profession where many know each other from early years of training or regular appearance in court, and of course dining together.  More importantly perhaps, is that a client would not be impressed if his advocate appeared to be very friendly with his opponent's advocate.

Barrister's instructions are called a brief it is folded in a particular way and tied up with pink ribbon.  Oddly, barristers do not use brief-cases.



Barristers never enter or  leave a court room without bowing to the judge.  It is said that it is not the judge they are bowing to but the 'presence' of the Queen. More realistically it is greeting. Certainly, a barrister never bows when entering an empty courtroom.


Dignifying the judge

It is interesting to note that barristers never carry briefcases, although their written instructions are called briefs.  Also, barristers never leave a courtroom if it means the judge would be left on his own, always one barrister remains, this is called "dressing the judge".


Mode of address

Barristers refer to each other as "My Learned Friend" and refer to solicitors as "My Friend". Solicitors, policemen and court staff refer to magistrates as "Your Worships", barristers use the term of address, "Sir" or "Madam". 


Barristers robing and discussing cases


To a stranger it is disturbing to hear these settlements, barristers will often use the phrase "I" and not "my client", so the conversation will perhaps be "I took the property, but I was not stealing it, I intended to return it", it sounds even worse if they are deciding legal issues of rape. Barristers are provided with a 'robing room' in court buildings, cases are often settled here. 


Queen's Counsel privileges


QC's are allowed to use a lectern, a junior using a lectern is frowned upon.  Many QC's provide their own hand made lecterns.


QC's always address the judge before junior counsel. Queen's Counsel (QC's) sit nearest to the judge, junior barristers sit behind them and solicitors behind the juniors. 


Judges attire


Judicial attire is complicated as illustrated by this:
"Court Dress - Consultation Paper issued on behalf of the Lord Chancellor and the Lord Chief Justice" (August 1992): When sitting in the Court of Appeal (Criminal Division), High Court judges, like other members of the Court of Appeal, wear a black silk gown and a short wig, as they do in Divisional Court. When dealing with criminal business at first instance in the winter, a High Court judge wears the scarlet robe of the ceremonial dress but without the scarlet cloth and fur mantle. When dealing with criminal business in the summer, the judge wears a similar scarlet robe, but with silk rather than fur facings. A Queen's Bench judge trying civil cases in winter wears a black robe faced with fur, a black scarf and girdle and a scarlet tippet; in summer, a violet robe faced with silk, with the black scarf and girdle and scarlet tippet. On red letter days (which include the Sovereign's birthday and certain saint's days) all judges wear the scarlet robe for the appropriate season."
The ceremonial costume worn by High Court judges date from the time of Edward III (1327-77).


The Battle to Get Rid of Wigs

1624 Louis XIII went prematurely bald. He disguised this with a wig and started a fashion which became almost universal for European upper & middle class men by the beginning of the 18th Century.


1660. Wigs were first worn in court as a result of the general fashion that begun under Charles II in the 1660s. The powdered white or grey legal wig, made from horsehair, had become a custom by the end of the 18th century.

1868. The first of many calls for the wearing of wigs in court to be abolished came from Sir Robert Collier, a prominent 19th-century judge and MP, after a judge instructed counsel to remove their headwear during a heat wave in August 1868.

Wig abolitionists have Thomas Jefferson on their side. After visiting a London court, he called judges' wigs "detestable things", writing: "We must not have men sitting in judgment who look like mice peeping out of oakum."


1992. The Lord Chancellor's consultation paper on court dress in August 1992 found a strong majority in favour of maintaining the status quo, with defendants named as the group most supportive of the retention of wigs, one respondent summed it up by saying he wanted to be represented by a "...proper barrister with a wig".

1992 Lord Taylor of Gosforth, observed that wigs make people look "slightly ridiculous."

1992 The Commercial Bar Association proposed dispensing with wigs in court, prompting a general debate in the House of Lords.
Lord Richard thought that wigs were "insanitary, scratchy, and extremely hot."
Wigs are often removed in proceedings involving children.  This removal is a requirement following the decision of the ECHR in the case of T & V v UK.


1997. The old battle between traditionalists and modernisers raged again, after Geoff Hoon, the second ranking minister in The Department for Constitutional Affairs (then the Lord Chancellor's Department), signalled that the Government might abolish wigs in May 1997.


2001 a survey by the Bar Council on the wearing of wigs followed indications from the Lord Chancellor and the Lord Chief Justice that they were in favour of a revised dress code for barristers.


May 2003 The Department for Constitutional Affairs (formerly the  Lord Chancellor's Department) launch another enquiry, the survey alone cost £100,000.

At the time of writing wigs continue to be worn in most courts. As Lord Donaldson put it, "There is no urgent need to go discarding something which has been out of date for at least a century".


March 2006  Lord Phillips the Lord Chief Justice in England and Wales, said he wanted to do away with wigs for judges and barristers in civil cases. The chairman of the Bar Council made a similar comment in an editorial in the Bar Magazine.  Solicitor-advocates have complained that they appear "inferior advocates" because they are not permitted to wear wigs; solicitor QCs are allowed to wear them.

January 2007 Lord Phillips does away with wigs in civil cases, or rather says he will.

December 2007 The decision to do away with wigs is put on hold.  A survey by the Bar Council, which represents 15,000 barristers found two thirds of them support the wearing of wigs in civil and family cases.  They are worn in major criminal cases, so it looks like they might have been saved again.

October 2008 judges in civil cases wear a new civil robe, without a wig, and wear different coloured tabs. Lawyers wear their practitioners’ dress without a wig.
Tabs at the neck of the new civil gown indicate the rank of judge: Court of Appeal, gold tabs; High Court, red tabs; members of the High Court Masters Group, pink tabs; district judges, blue tabs.

There is no change of court dress worn in the exercise of the criminal jurisdiction save that High Court judges would wear their winter robes in winter and summer alike.


1 October 2008 (the start of the new legal year)

Circuit judges have retained their wigs for all cases, not just criminal.District judges wore wigs with their new gowns at the ceremonial opening of the legal year in September 2008.  It has been reported that, they felt it would look a bit odd in the procession if one class of judge did not wear wigs.




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