Leading Article: A bonfire of wigs

Share
Related Topics
CHURCH of England clerics are said to have abandoned in 1832 the wigs they wore when engaged upon their duties. Other professions did so several decades earlier. Only in the law do wigs linger on. To lag more than a century and a half behind the Church of England is quite an achievement. It is to the credit of the Lord Chancellor, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, and the new Lord Chief Justice, Lord Taylor, that they have decided to invite contributions from all interested parties, including the public, to the debate on whether wigs - and gowns - should continue to be worn in court by judges and barristers. The cases for and against retention are outlined in a preliminary document published today.

Only three arguments in favour of maintaining the tradition are at all persuasive. The first, not touched upon in the paper, is that in criminal trials wigs and gowns help to foster an atmosphere of due seriousness. The second is that they encourage the valid notion that it is not the individual who is dispensing justice, but the law itself. The third and related argument is that wigs in particular render judges and barristers relatively anonymous. They thus provide a light disguise that reduces the danger of vengeful attacks by those found guilty.

None of these arguments, singly or together, is strong enough to justify retention. Providing judges and barristers dress with reasonable sobriety - track suits would strike an unsuitably informal note - there is not much likelihood of defendants and juries being unaware of the seriousness of the proceedings. The idea that lawyers have to wear wigs to inspire respect is insulting both to the profession and to the intelligence of the public. So, too, is the idea that the majesty of the law has to be emphasised by rendering its representatives quasi-anonymous and more majestic than they would otherwise appear.

The security factor is more problematical. Having abandoned their wigs, Australian barristers reverted to them when several of their number were attacked. Yet in the UK judges have been harassed and attacked (one in Northern Ireland was even murdered by the IRA), despite wearing wigs. The Lord Chancellor's Department hopes to hear from - unwigged - magistrates about their experiences. It has been sagely suggested, though not in today's document, that judges who nurture such fears might perhaps wear wigs not in court, but when venturing into the hurly-burly of, say, their local supermarkets.

Much the strongest argument in favour of abolition is that wigs in particular reinforce the impression that the law is antiquated and out of touch with modern life. They are also seen as further evidence that barristers and judges consider themselves to be superior beings who enjoy intimidating lesser mortals, especially witnesses - the majority of whom are blameless people attempting to serve the cause of truth. It is very likely that in some legal breasts donning a wig does indeed arouse illusions of superiority. It may also reinforce the notion that while they stand in judgment on real life events, they are themselves at one remove from it: perhaps it is because they are wearing fancy dress that judges sometimes behave as if they are on stage. In reality, as the recent spate of miscarriages of justice shows, they are fallible human beings. Their wigs must go. The jury is out on gowns.

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Senior Accounts Assistant - Accounts Payable - St. Albans

£26000 - £28000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: Senior Accounts Assistan...

Ashdown Group: Treasury Assistant - Accounts Assistant - London, Old Street

£24000 - £26000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: A highly successful, glo...

Recruitment Genius: Installation and Service / Security Engineer

£22000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company is part of a Group...

Recruitment Genius: Service Charge Accounts Assistant

£16000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you a a young, dynamic pers...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Errors & Omissions: Outgunned by a lack of military knowledge

Guy Keleny
Ukip leader Nigel Farage in Tiny Tim’s tea shop while canvassing in Rochester this week  

General Election 2015: What on earth happened to Ukip?

Matthew Norman
General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence
Public relations as 'art'? Surely not

Confessions of a former PR man

The 'art' of public relations is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef succumbs to his sugar cravings with super-luxurious sweet treats

Bill Granger's luxurious sweet treats

Our chef loves to stop for 30 minutes to catch up on the day's gossip, while nibbling on something sweet
London Marathon 2015: Paula Radcliffe and the mother of all goodbyes

The mother of all goodbyes

Paula Radcliffe's farewell to the London Marathon will be a family affair
Everton vs Manchester United: Steven Naismith demands 'better' if Toffees are to upset the odds against United

Steven Naismith: 'We know we must do better'

The Everton forward explains the reasons behind club's decline this season
Arsenal vs Chelsea: Praise to Arsene Wenger for having the courage of his convictions

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Praise to Wenger for having the courage of his convictions