Wigmakers get their horsehair in a twist over Irvine's plans to dress down courts

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Wigmakers of Chancery Lane were in no doubt yesterday who was to blame for the possible demise of their ancient craft.

Wigmakers of Chancery Lane were in no doubt yesterday who was to blame for the possible demise of their ancient craft.

Recent comments by the Lord Chancellor, Lord Irvine of Lairg, on how uncomfortable he found his ceremonial horsehair wig were followed by government proposals intended to herald an era of dress-down justice in the courtroom.

A consultation paper published yesterday included a number of informal alternatives to the wig and gown that have been the legal uniform since the days of Queen Anne. The most radical would leave judges and barristers appearing in court in nothing more than their pinstripe suit.

Thresher & Glenny in Chancery Lane, London, began its trade making stockings for Lord Nelson, later graduating to wigs. It is one of three leading legal outfitters – the others are Stanley Ley Ltd and Ede & Ravenscroft – whose shops exclusively serve the lawyers and judges of the four Inns of Court.

The proprietor, Keith Sargant, could barely hide his disgust. "Barristers and judges look so much more elegant in wigs and gowns. Why does Lord Irvine want to interfere with a tradition that has been working quite satisfactorily for hundreds of years? The average person who wants their day in court expects a bit of formality. Otherwise they feel they've been cheated."

Lord Irvine, conspicuous by his absence yesterday, left the job of launching the consultation exercise to his junior minister, Baroness Scotland of Asthal. She said people were wrong to suggest the Government had already made up its mind, adding: "If we are going to change court procedure that we have had for several hundred years, it's appropriate for the public to be consulted.

"It's about creating a court environment where justice is able to be done in a way that gives proper sobriety and solemnity but also makes people feel sufficiently comfortable that they can tell their tale and not be put off."

A hundred craftsmen and women are estimated to be employed in Britain's wig-making industry. If the consultation leads to the abolition of the wig, many may find themselves out of work.

At Thresher & Glenny it takes a week to make three barrister's wigs. The most expensive is the judge's full-bottomed ceremonial peruke, priced at £1,350. Each curl is curled by hand from horsehair imported from Argentina.

Whatever the outcome of the consultation ceremonial wigs are expected to be retained. Wigmakers will take comfort from the fact that the previous time the public was consulted on court dress the vote was strongly in favour of keeping wigs.

Yesterday's consultation included a more recent survey commissioned by the Lord Chancellor's Department of 1,600 members of the public and 500 court users that showed 64 per cent thought court dress should be changed. Only a third thought barristers should retain wigs, although two thirds thought the wigs should continue to be worn by judges in criminal cases.

Lord Irvine explains in his introduction to the consultation paper: "Society has moved apace in the decade since the last consultation exercise was undertaken and I believe it is necessary for a fresh, balanced view to be taken on how comfortable non-professional court users are in a modern civil or criminal court environment."

Thresher & Glenny's contribution to the consultation will offer an opposite view.