01 October, 2008

Court garb

Judges stop wearing wigs in courts in England. The word wig is short for ‘periwig’. That word derives from the French ‘perruque’. The fashion for men to wear the powdered white wig we know so well came from the court of Louis XIV of France. It spread to English society during the reign of Charles II of Britain in the late 17 century.

When men wearing wigs went out of fashion during the reign of George III, judges and barristers continued to wear them in court. Judges wore the shoulder-length ‘full bottom’ wig until the 1780s. From that period, they adopted for civil trials the smaller wig with a tail at the back. From the 1840s the small ‘bench wig’, used by English judges up to today, took over for criminal trials. A judge’s court wig costs around EC$4,000, while a full-bottomed wig would set you back over $10,000.

Today, 1 October, is the first day for new judicial garb in the UK. Judges will appear in civil courts from now on dressed in a simple robe and without wigs.

The reform was not haphazardly done. There was consultation with the public, the bar, and the judiciary. The conclusion Lord Phillips, the Chief Justice, came to was that wigs make English judges look out of touch. Some even went so far as to say that the old horse hair wigs made judges look ridiculous.

Of course, we in the West Indies long ago gave up wearing wigs to court. We abolished the wig in 1972 for both the bench and bar. A few of the older lawyers still have them. My old barrister's wig only gets used when the High School has a play to put on that needs a borrowed wig.

So, in some ways, the English judges are only now catching up with our judges. But, in other ways they have gone further. Instead of the old fashioned stuff gowns and silk gowns that our judges and lawyers still wear, they will wear a simple European-style black robe fastened with Velcro.

They will continue to wear wigs in criminal trials. They say they hope it gives them a degree of anonymity should they ever meet a convict in the street!

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