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26 July 2023

To Wig, or not to Wig, that is the question

The role of Advocates and Barristers can be traced as far back as Ancient Greece and Rome when the most persuasive individuals capitalised on their abilities to dispute and influence. Whilst it wasn't lawful to accept payment to act on the behalf of another in disputes, it wasn't properly policed, giving rise to the profession today.

The introduction of formal court attire is reportedly dated back to at least 1327 during the rule of Edward III. At this time, a gown with a scowl and cloak was established for legal practice, although the wearing of wigs came much later. The wearing of wigs was highly prominent in the 1600s, where practitioners were obligated to wear them as a sign of 'polite society' and a symbol of status. The wig 'trend' was thought to have originated by Louis XIV of France who utilised a wig to hide his balding scalp stemming from health issues.

Advocates continue to wear wigs and gowns for certain Court hearings but there are no definite reasons for why wigs and gowns are still adopted today, although they certainly attract mixed opinions amongst Advocates and Barristers alike. Some Barristers in England and Wales voiced their opinions for an article in the Independent in August 2022:

James Mulholland QC, a senior barrister with more than 30 years' experience, told The Guardian: “The wig is a very important part of the criminal justice system. Because barristers are independent lawyers fighting for an individual and putting their case forward. They have no personal interest in the case. The wig emphasises their anonymity, their separation, their distancing.”

John McNamara, a criminal barrister, told the paper that wigs bring a solemnity to proceedings. “As a younger barrister, it certainly helps level the playing field. If you're against someone who has more experience, you feel that with both of you wearing wigs and gowns, your physical appearance doesn't matter as much, because you're recognised by the judge and jury as being qualified to deal with the case.”

It is certainly a topic that draws mixed opinion from those practising, and in the Isle of Man, it seems that legal practitioners are equally divided. A recent poll in the Isle of Man asked members of the Law Society to vote on whether wigs and gowns should still be worn in civil proceedings. Members were asked specifically to vote on the following options:

  • That no wigs and gowns should be worn in any civil proceedings
  • The wearing of wigs and gowns should be worn in all civil proceedings
  • The wearing of wigs and gowns in the Appeal Division (SOG) only
  • To qualify for the Owner Occupier rate of duty you must be both an Owner Occupier (as set out above) and an Isle of Man Resident.
  • The wearing of wigs and gowns should be worn in all civil proceedings except for small claims.

The results were as follows:

The poll attracted an array of comments from advocates including:

  • The substantial cost of a wig and gown to advocates.
  • The importance of separating the client and the advocate.
  • The disproportionate nature of wigs and gowns with the increasing numbers of litigants in person.
  • The need for 'formality' in trials.

Given the split nature of the poll, it is unlikely that any substantial change will be put into place. It is, however, interesting to see a fairly equal split in the views of members across a diverse range of advocates.

Whilst Wigs and Gowns may not be brought back right now, Judge of Appeal Cross KC has invited comments on whether a local Manx Court dress should be introduced.