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May|June 2002
Court Potato By Dashka Slater
God Save the Wig By Asha Rangappa
Judge Lee's County By Bill Rankin
"Fighting Words" By Jeffrey Rosen
Gun by Gun By Glenn Harlan Reynolds

God Save the Wig

By Asha Rangappa

In the English legal profession, both barristers and solicitors are what Americans call lawyers. The differences between them, though, have long mattered more than what they have in common. In the past year, what matters most seems to be who gets to wear what.

Only barristers-in-training study in one of the four Inns of Court in London, which are crosses between learned societies and choosy guilds. When students pass their exams, they are literally called to the bar in their inn's dining hall and admitted to practice law before the English courts. Newly minted barristers acquire two garments: a billowing black robe and a double-tabbed linen band that serves as a collar, with the tabs said to represent the tablets of Moses. Then barrisiters are fitted for the retro symbol of their standing and attainment—their wigs.

Most new barristers find their way near the Inns of Court to Ede & Ravenscroft, England's leading wigmaker. On display are handmade hairpieces to suit every rank: Barristers wear "tie-wigs," which cover half the head; judges buy the larger, frizzier "bob-wigs"; and, on ceremonial occasions, senior barristers, judges, and members of the House of Lords don the floppy, shoulder-length "spaniel wigs." Ede & Ravenscroft's white horsesehair, or "forensic," wig was patented in 1822. (The white horsehair replaced black; the black horsehair wig had ended a grisly trade in human hair.) The forensic wig requires no regular curling or powdering and maintains a fresh scent. This convenience comes at a price: Wigs range from 400 to 2,000 ($600 to $3,000). Taxpayers foot the bill for judges' wigs; barristers, who pay for their own, sometimes shop for used wigs. Most barristers invest in one wig for a lifetime, and a discolored or disheveled hairpiece is a mark of a long career—one's own or someone else's.

Courtroom advocacy is the specialty of barristers, while solicitors spend the bulk of their legal training in solicitors' offices—similar to American business-law firms—before becoming licensed to represent clients in all other aspects of lawyering. Except in a few lower courts, solicitors must defer to barristers: A solicitor handles a case until it reaches court, and then has to retain a barrister to take the case through the remainder of the process. In effect, the solicitor represents a party in the case, and the barrister the solicitor, so solicitors usually don't speak in court. They also don't get to wear wigs.

Since 1994, though, a fraction of solicitors have attained "rights of audience" which is shorthand for the ability to speak directly on behalf of a client in court. (These rights were granted to all solicitors in 2000, though a solicitor has to qualify in order to exercise them.) At first, only a few hundred solicitors took advantage of this opportunity to be heard, but now there are over a thousand "solicitor advocates" practicing in England and Wales. But their increased prestige hasn't improved their wardrobe. Although solicitor advocates wear black robes (which are shorter than the ones barristers wear), the judges who vote on courtroom dress haven't allowed them to complete the outfit. To wit, still no wigs.

The rebuff could be considered a favor. The late Lord Taylor of Gosforth, when he was head of the criminal division of England's courts, observed once that wigs make people look "slightly ridiculous." That was in 1992, the same year that the Commercial Bar Association of England proposed banning wigs from business proceedings in court, prompting a general debate in the House of Lords on the merits of wig-wearing. One member, Lord Richard, griped that wigs were "insanitary, scratchy, and extremely hot." The head of the courts' civil division, known as the Master of the Rolls, allowed that he removed his wig in front of children because it scared them to tears. And the late Earl of Halsbury offered a bit of history, pointing out that wigs came into use because "people were ... getting fed up with lice." Despite this derision, the members agreed that a conclusion could be reached only after an official report was made to the public—and the Queen, who as the sovereign had an interest in the matter. By the time the report was published, however, several polls had made it clear that most of the legal profession and the public wanted barristers as well as judges to hold on to their wigs.

Today, it's not uncommon to see a turban in court, but most barristers in England continue to wear wigs. So do their counterparts in at least 20 countries of the former empire, including Hong Kong, Jamaica, and Uganda. Here is the case for wigs in a nutshell: They confer dignity and solemnity on court proceedings. They lend anonymity in highly charged criminal cases involving unsavory—and possibly vengeful—clients. To the wig's most enthusiastic supporters, junior and female members of the bar, these emblems of privilege also obscure differences of age and gender and serve as an equalizer in a profession still dominated by fusty white men. Wigs serve another purpose as well: They ensure that solicitor advocates won't be mistaken for barristers.

A recent chairman of the Bar Council of England, Roy Amlot, QC (as in Queen's Counsel, the fanciest form of barrister), believes the distinction is important. He has argued that the two-tiered dress code reflects the difference in education between barristers, who are the courtroom "specialists," and solicitor advocates, who "don't have the same level of training or the constant experience in advocacy." But the curly accessory also creates a practical advantage for barristers: In a study conducted by the Bar Council to determine the potential impact of solicitor advocates on their profession, nine out of ten criminal defendants said they preferred a "proper barrister with a wig." (An English lawyer joke: "The reason a barrister needs to wear a wig is so the jury will know which side should win.")

Last year, solicitor advocates confronted the Lord Chancellor of England, Lord Irvine of Lairg, whose job is a combination of Chief Justice, Attorney General, and President Pro Tem of the Senate. The disgruntled lawyers demanded that they too be permitted to wear wigs. (They also claim that the ban on wigs contradicts Britain's new Human Rights Act.) Their choice of arbiter was slightly unfortunate: The Lord Chancellor had recently requested permission to take off his own hairpiece when acting in the House of Lords, complaining that it "weighs a ton." The Lords granted his plea, 145-115.

Still, the new advocates' claim to wigs is as good as anyone else's. No English law has ever required that wigs be worn in court by judges or barristers, but the law hasn't limited who gets to wear them, either. The last official instruction for courtroom dress, the Judicial Rules of 1635, was issued before the wig arrived in England in 1660, when King Charles II returned to the throne from exile in France and imported the fashion from the court of Louis XIV. The rules didn't mention head covering. Since then, the law has offered little guidance.


Asha Rangappa is an associate editor of Legal Affairs and worked in England as a fellow of the American Inns of Court.

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