The great wigs debate: If you look like a fool, people will laugh at you


It is this country's curse that it is stuck in its past.

This has many manifestations. We see it, for example, in the inexplicable continued love for our hideous royal family, a medieval reminder of the gross inequality in our society, and in the rose tinted reminiscing for an imperial golden age that never actually existed. Oh, and not forgetting World War II, which was actually won by Russian blood, rather than good old British pluck.

Closer to the home of this blog we see it in the justice system (or at least parts of it) clinging to the archaic notion that wearing a horse hair wig somehow elevates lawyers and judges above those unfortunates who have the misfortune to come into contact with the system. Of course it does no such thing, as most people who are not cocooned within the blinkering walls of the system will tell you. If anything, it brings the system into ridicule and disrepute. 

I have felt this way about legal be-wigging (and other elements of legal fancy dress, as demonstrated by the image above) for many years, and have expressed my thoughts occasionally over that time. However, this post was prompted by an article that appeared in the Guardian yesterday. The article is entitled 'It is helpful to wear the uniform': barrister's wig enjoys surprising popularity, and as one would guess from that, it puts forward arguments in favour of retaining equine toupees.

The article also tells us that our esteemed Lord Chancellor holds views on wigs that befit "one of the most ancient offices of state, dating back many centuries", to quote from the UK Parliament website. Whilst he would quite happily put a stop to lawyers doing their job in seeing that our immigration laws are properly implemented, he strongly believes that wigs should not be consigned to that place they so obviously belong: the dustbin of history - telling us firmly that "it will never happen on my watch."

So what are those arguments that keep the bin-lid closed? The article essentially puts forward two, which I will refer to as 'separation' and 'respect'.

As to separation, we are told that wigs, as worn by barristers and judges (thankfully, I was never required to wear one in the course of my un-illustrious career as a solicitor - in fact, I never even wore a gown) emphasise barristers' (and no doubt judges') "anonymity, their separation, their distancing."

Hmm. They clearly don't do a good job on the anonymity front - just read the heading of any law report, clearly setting out the names of the judges and barristers involved. And whilst I can appreciate the wish for barristers and judges to separate and distance themselves from the hoi-polloi with which they are forced to mingle in our courts, is wearing a 17th-century costume the right way to go about it in the 21st-century?

Moving to respect I... can't stop laughing. I mean, just look at that picture above. How is dressing like that going to attract respect? Answer: it's not. I just feel sorry for the accused before a criminal judge, who knows that if he can't supress his urge to laugh at His/Her Honour's rug then he's going to end up with a much longer sentence.

The Guardian article does include a hint of wiggy common sense. A barrister admits that: "They are rather ridiculous and perhaps contribute to an impression that the law, the legal system, is out of date." Well, quite. Unfortunately, the article then ends with a quote from a QC who I will not embarrass by naming here, who says that the answer to the enormous problems currently facing our crumbling justice system "needs to be the wig and a considerable amount of money".

I despair.

Image: Lords Justices of Appeal, full ceremonial dress, 2013, by FruitMonkey, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.