Leading Article: A bonfire of wigs

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.