YOU DON’T take a stagecoach to court, nor do you have a slave plantation in Jamaica anymore, so why, asks one ex-barrister, do lawyers persist in keeping the outdated 18th century practice of wearing a wig in court?
In a light-hearted column in the Spectator this month, one-time UK barrister, journalist and author Harry Mount argued that the time has come to rid the profession of the antiquated tradition of “sticking thick mats of greasy horsehair on their heads”.
Referring to a newly released survey about the practice, released by the UK’s new Ministry of Justice, he said that 60 per cent of the public thought court dress was anachronistic, intimidating and antiquated.
But the profession itself is literally trying to keep its hair on as commentary suggests the opposite. But in upcoming months the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Phillips, will decide for certain whether the practice will continue. It has already been determined that judges hearing civil cases in the High Court and the Court of Appeal will no longer wear wigs from 1 October this year.
According to Mount, the profession used to defend wigs on the basis that the public liked them. But with the Ministry of Justice’s new survey released, this argument no longer gels.
“The pro-wig lobby are not left to depend on another dud argument — wearing a wig supposedly means that lawyers and judges aren’t identifiable by crooks who want to beat them up. That’s always struck me as an idiotic line. Who wouldn’t recognise the late George Carman or John Mortimer, wig on or off?” he wrote.
Mount said he wore a wig on a few occasions in his brief career as a libel barrister. He labelled the practice “pointless, cumbersome and expensive”.
He said that wearing one feels as one might imagine it would “to stick a half-inch-thick layer of horsehair on your head — hot and prickly”.
He asked people to consider the heat on a hot July afternoon, and lugging it in its hot tin case on the train, “and the hot hours wasted in robing rooms”.
Arguing that Lord Phillips will rule that barristers do hold on to their wigs, Mount said that barristers should acknowledge the real reason for their affection: “the conviction that the more outdated something is, the grander it becomes”.
Mount was New York correspondent for the British newspaper the Daily Telegraph until he became chief leader writer for the Daily Mail. He is a son of the prominent journalist Ferdinand Mount and a cousin of the British Conservative Party leader David Cameron. Mount has written a book about his year as a pupil barrister, entitled My Brief Career — The trials of a young lawyer.