THE 17th-century horsehair wig, a traditional emblem of the legal system, could be scrapped under proposals published yesterday to modernise court dress.
Reforms that could lead to judges and lawyers wearing business suits were outlined by the Lord Chancellor, Lord Irvine of Lairg, who wants to find out how court dress affects the publicís view of, and confidence in, the justice system.
A modern form of attire could be based on the simple gown worn by European judges, and the wig, which barristers complain is hot, smelly and uncomfortable, could be consigned to legal history.
Lord Irvine said: ìThe issue at stake here is far more important than the mere wearing of wigs. Society has moved apace in the decade since the last consultation exercise was undertaken and I believe it is necessary for a fresh, balanced view to be taken on how comfortable non-professional court users are in a modern civil or criminal court environment.î
The £110,000 study, entitled Working Court Dress, can be read on the internet (www.lcd.gov.uk) and people have until August 14 to express their views.
Two thirds of people favour a change in the court costume, which dates from Charles IIís reign, with only 31 per cent saying that judges should wear wigs in civil cases. For criminal cases, 68 per cent are in favour of keeping the form of dress as it is.
The proposed changes are modest rather than radical. The options for High Court judges, for instance, stop short of ordinary business dress: even reformed dress for that rank includes either a red or black gown, although the idea of abandoning wigs is canvassed.
Circuit judges could lose their distinctive purple gowns with red sash in favour of a plain black version, and the more junior rank of district judge could work in everyday wear. Barristers, the study paper suggets, could do the same or wear black robes, minus wigs. The study paper also invites comment on the attire of Crown Court clerks, who wear wigs and gowns, and court ushers, who wear simple black gowns. The paper says: ìThere is no justification for retaining working court dress on the ground of tradition alone ó our courts are not a tourist attraction.î
The survey drew on interviews with 1,571 members of the public and 506 court users. Some 60 per cent favoured change of some kind.
Some of those interviewed believed that the wig should be kept as a symbol of tradition and authority, but others viewed it as ìantiquated, frightening and unnecessaryî.
Carolyn Kirby, the President of the Law Society, said: ìIt is important that court users should not feel intimidated or alienated by what they see in court and we therefore favour abolishing wigs.î
There should also be parity between solicitor-advocates and barristers, she said. ìAt the moment only barristers wear wigs ó solicitors do not. QCs appear on the front bench and other advocates in the row behind. This should not be the case. It creates a perception among victims and defendants that the other sideís advocate has an advantage.î
The Bar Council said: ìThere is the feeling among the Bar that there are more important issues ó access to justice, trial by jury and court security ó which should be addressed first.î
The debate on wigs has been long-running. It is ten years since the last official review, when, after an 18-month consultation, it was decided to do nothing.
Senior judges, including Lord Woolf, the Lord Chief Justice, favour reform, and Lord Irvine has complained about the weight of the ìpound of horsehairî he is required to wear.
But other judges who appear in the criminal courts favour the wig as a kind of ìdisguiseî, reducing the likelihood of their being confronted in the street by a criminal they had helped to convict. Barristers usually keep the same wig for the whole of their careers and having a tatty one is considered a badge of seniority.
Kirsty Brimelow, a criminal barrister, said that a Bar survey three years ago found support for the wearing of wigs. ìJunior barristers were particularly in favour. When you are first called to the Bar youíre very young and the wig and gown give that extra stamp of authority. In the criminal Bar you can be dealing with difficult defendants who, at the beginning of your career, may have been in more courts than you have.î
Baroness Scotland, a minister at the Lord Chancellorís Department, said the Government had deliberately not expressed its own preference in the consultation so as not to pre-judge it. But she added: ìThe colour of the gown is as a result of being in mourning for Queen Anne (1702-14). Thatís why barristers went into black. Is that still appropriate in 2003?î