Cabby courts an air of authority and proves power of wig and gown

NEVER mind the lack of adversarial skills, just see what a Louis XIV look does for A W Bird, a London cabby, writes Heather Mills.

Lawyers and judges may be justified in their reluctance to cast off the wigs and gowns, abandoned by other professions two centuries ago. While some may think court garb ridiculously outmoded, Joe Criminal apparently believes curled horsehair and silk can transform dull mediocrity into a super Rumpole.

According to a survey 84 per cent of defendants feel more confident when a barrister dresses up. Barristers and judges too, it seems, feel happier when hiding beneath wigs and gowns.

According to a consultation paper, issued yesterday on behalf of the Lord Chancellor and the Lord Chief Justice, it is not simply about disguising the bald head, the thickening girth or incompetence. There is a serious issue of security. Australia reintroduced wigs in family courts after two judges were later recognised by litigants and shot.

As well as protection from identification, other sticklers for tradition argue that wig-wearing is a great leveller, blurring age, sex and race differences, while giving the court dignity and authority.

Against that argue the reformers - who include Lord Taylor, the Lord Chief Justice, who has the task of restoring public confidence in the courts - ancient dress indicates outdated attitudes and undesirable elitism. It is intimidating to witnesses, juries and defendants. Another argument is the cost to the taxpayer in allowances to judges for their fur and finery. (Barristers pay all their bills).

The judge's short court wig alone costs pounds 690 towards which the taxpayer contributes pounds 635; the court coat and waistcoat pounds 825. When they start donning their ceremonial silk stockings, breeches and lace, costs run into thousands. Silk stocking cost pounds 15 a pair, and the long 'full-bottomed' wig pounds 1,590. Gold-laced ceremonial robes used by Lords Justices cost at least pounds 8,000. Turning out Lord Mackay, who as head of the judiciary wears the finest of robes, costs even more.

With yesterday's consultation paper he and Lord Taylor are inviting comment from everybody - from judges to villains.

Early signs are that the garb - described by Lord Richardson in the Lords as 'insanitary, scratchy and extremely hot' - may stay, despite most of our European partners having adopted less formal attire. A survey of all court users by Counsel, the journal of the Bar Council of England and Wales, found 79 per cent in favour.

At the Bar opinion is divided. George Carman QC, famed for courtroom skills most recently seen in the Jani Allan libel trial, is an abolitionist.

But Gilbert Gray QC, for keeping the uniform, said: 'The Lord Chancellor's department should busy itself with much more important considerations - like paying its bill to counsel on time.'

BASIC REQUIREMENTS

High Court and Circuit Judge, and Queen's Counsel Court coat, waistcoat pounds 825

Sleeved waistcoat pounds 240

Breeches pounds 240

Stockings pounds 15

Court shoes, buckles pounds 135

Lace stock (jabot), cuffs pounds 52

Wigs:

Short bar (QC only) pounds 339

Full bottomed (CJ) pounds 1,590

Short bench (HCJ) pounds 690

Leading article, page 26

(Photograph omitted)

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