Tuesday, 1 April 2008

Wigs off for UK civil judges, chief justice says

The traditional wigs and gowns worn by judges and advocates for 300 years could be scrapped for civil and commercial trials under a review by the Lord Chief Justice. Lord Phillips of Worth Matravers, a moderniser who dislikes his own five different costumes, intends to reopen the long-running debate of horse-hair headdress when he takes over as official head of the judiciary next month.

The move comes after concerns by the president of the Law Society and the Solicitors’ Association of Higher Court Advocates that they are treated as second-class citizens when it comes to court dress.

The 2,000 solicitor-advocates are not allowed to wear wigs and also wear different robes — a simple black gown.

Kevin Martin, president of the Law Society, says that for some years solicitor-advocates have argued for parity with barristers: either there are no wigs at all or both kinds of advocate wear the same costume.

In a letter to the Lord Chief Justice, he says: “The difference can lead to solicitoradvocates being seen as inferior to barristers. Jurors may form the impression that a non-wigged lawyer is less credible.”

The problem is heightened by differences in mode of address: barristers describe each other as “my learned friend” but solicitor-advocates as “my friend”. Solicitors are concerned that the rules could be a breach of competition law.

Mr Martin says: “There are instances of clients indicating that they do not mind who the advocate is, as long as they wear a wig.”

While there is backing for reform, the public — and many criminal barristers — support keeping wigs in criminal trials. Any move to scrap wigs might make an exception for criminal trials. Mark Clough, QC, chairman of the Solicitors’ Association of Higher Court Advocates and one of only a handful of solicitor Queen’s Counsel who anomalously wear the same robes as barristers, says: “We have always argued for parity — with or without wigs.”

Lord Phillips favours a simple black gown and faulard or collar. Stephen Hockman, QC, the chairman of the Bar, is also believed to favour reform.