British Lawyers Build Case Against Wigs

A barrister at Lincoln's Inn in London dons a traditional gown and wig. A push for a more modern British court system has ignited a debate on the 17th-century headpiece.
A barrister at Lincoln's Inn in London dons a traditional gown and wig. A push for a more modern British court system has ignited a debate on the 17th-century headpiece. (By Paul Rogers -- London Times)

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By Mary Jordan and Kevin Sullivan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, April 4, 2006

LONDON -- Lawyer John Baldwin stood in Courtroom 61 of the Royal Courts of Justice last week, holding his curly white wig in his hands.

"Some people think it gives them more authority," Baldwin said of his traditional horsehair headpiece, which trial lawyers are required to wear in British courtrooms. "But most of us just think they're itchy."

The wigs are drawing increasing criticism from lawyers who say they are as quaint and outdated as quill pens or suits of armor. As the country's legal system undergoes a raft of changes -- including the creation of a Supreme Court modeled after the U.S. high court -- the call to cast off wigs is growing louder in courtroom hallways and lawyers' chambers.

"It is an ancient practice that many of us don't think has a place in the modern world," said Kevin Martin, president of the Law Society, a national group representing 120,000 lawyers. Martin said he was hopeful that change is near because the judiciary has a new leader, Nicholas Phillips, who is considered a modernizer not wedded to the 17th-century adornments.

Phillips is not ready to comment on court dress, a spokesman in his office said, but in 2003 he was quoted as saying that in civil cases, "I would like to see wigs go."

More than 300 years ago, wigs were worn by the learned and well-to-do in all walks of life. But after they went out of fashion among the general public, the judiciary retained them, with the argument that wigs lend an air of solemnity, impartiality and anonymity. Critics say wigs are fusty, if not ridiculous.

In recent decades, various surveys have reached conflicting conclusions about the profession's and public's view on wigs. "If you were to make a significant decision to get rid of them, I would like to see overwhelming public support for their abolition," said Tom Little, chairman of the Young Barristers Committee of the Bar Council.

Little said many young lawyers like the wigs because they serve as a "leveler" against those who have much more experience. The profession should focus on "more important issues" such as legal aid for poor defendants, he said, rather than worrying about wigs. "Just because something is old, you shouldn't get rid of it. If that were the case, we would knock down all our old buildings."

As the debate continues, so does the traditional craft of turning horsehair into a headpiece by hand. Ede and Ravenscroft, a company dating to 1689, sells the typical "bar wig" for more than $800. The more elaborate "bench wig" for high court judges, with hair teased high in front, can cost $2,000, while the ceremonial "full-bottom wig," with long curls reaching to the shoulders, goes for more than $4,000.

"I had to take a bank loan out to get my wig and gown," said Kirsty Brimelow, a criminal lawyer in London who thinks it's time to toss off the wigs.

Lawyers typically buy one wig to last a career; many complain that they yellow and smell bad as the years go by.

At a time when the judiciary is trying to show the public it is "in touch and modern," Brimelow said, onlookers enter courtrooms only "to step back to the 17th century." She also noted "a more negative effect": Wigs can be intimidating to witnesses.

She added that English judges can look plain silly at international courts in The Hague when, seated amid colleagues from other European countries, they struggle to fasten headphones over fake curls to listen to translations.

Another rap against wigs is that only certain types of lawyers can wear them -- barristers can, while solicitor advocates, who perform similar functions, cannot. Many critics argue that this has set up an absurd inequality in the courtroom. "Jurors may form an impression that a non-wigged lawyer is less credible," the Law Society's Martin said in a recent letter to Phillips, the head of the judiciary. Martin, like other critics, thinks the wigs are an all-or-nothing matter: Everyone wears them or no one does.

Among the faction in favor of keeping them, people are typically more adamant about retaining wigs in criminal trials. They say they offer judges and lawyers a welcome degree of anonymity and distance from defendants who might want to seek revenge on them outside court.

Baldwin, the lawyer who says wigs are itchy, obligingly slipped his on when the judge walked into his courtroom the other day. Baldwin is representing Random House publishers in the copyright infringement suit brought by two authors who allege that "The Da Vinci Code" author Dan Brown stole his central ideas from them.

Perhaps not surprisingly, his opponent in the case, Jonathan Rayner James, had different views -- on the issues of the case and legal headgear. In James's view, wearing wigs is second nature for British lawyers, something they rarely think about but a useful way of demonstrating the status of lawyers and judges in the courtroom.

"Every system has that, whether it's gowns or something else," said James, a copyright law expert with neatly trimmed brown hair peeking out from under a row of perfect white curls. "But wigs are unique."


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