In defence of wigs: barristers' evidence

PUBLISHED : Monday, 12 April, 1993, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 12 April, 1993, 12:00am

IT'S old-fashioned, scratchy, and even unhygienic, but judges and barristers are reluctant to give up this emblem of British legal tradition - the horsehair wig.

Though this headpiece has long been ridiculed as anachronistic, it is far from a laughing matter in Britain where the judiciary recently decided that this 18th-century mark of British justice must not be discarded.

But in the whirl of decolonisation running up to 1997, might Hongkong judges and barristers lose their wig? Apparently not. Like their British counterparts, many believe that the tradition of wearing wigs in the High Court, Court of Appeal and district courts should be retained to uphold the dignity of the profession.

The forensic wig, as it is properly called, has formed part of the formal dress of judges and barristers in England since about 1670.

This tradition continues in places which still follow the British legal system, such as Nigeria, Zambia, Botswana, Australia, New Zealand and, of course, Hongkong.

Here, the formal attire for barristers, as now fixed by custom, comprises a full-cut black gown, lawn ''bands'' worn in place of a neck-tie, and a curled wig.

The wig worn by barristers is known as a bar wig and was styled by an English wig maker named Humphrey Ravenscroft in 1882.

It has a frizzed crown, below which are four rows of seven curls, then one row of four curls with one curl running vertically between them and two tails, looped and tied.

Judges wear a bench wig, known also as the undress or tye wig, when presiding. It is frizzed all over, with no curls, and has two small ties of horsehair at the back.

On ceremonial occasions, they wear the full-bottomed wig with its horizontal rows of fixed curls, which fall from the crown over the ears and on to the shoulders.

Despite vehement reaction against the practice among some counsel practising in Hongkong, a majority of those contacted by the South China Morning Post still believe wigs should be retained, even after 1997.

From a sample of 76 counsel (there are about 500 in Hongkong) who returned our questionnaire, 83 per cent favoured the practice.

Those who want to do away with the wigs argue that they are ridiculous, uncomfortable and may project an image of inaccessibility.

''The practice does not assist in the administration of justice and it is unrealistic in modern-day Hongkong,'' was the reply from one chamber. ''To wear this sort of kit in the Far East is preposterous. The American style is better where judges wear a gown and attorneys wear suits.'' Following a similar line of argument, Miss Betty Boothroyd, the first woman elected as Speaker in the House of Commons last April, has discarded her full-bottomed wig - but not done away with tradition.

''I should not feel uncomfortable in it. The chamber of the House of Commons is my workplace and I think one should be as comfortable as possible when one is working,'' she said.

''It's nothing to do with breaking with the tradition. It's all a matter of convenience.'' So now Miss Boothroyd dresses in a black gown on ordinary occasions and dons a gold-embroidered black robe for special ceremonies.

Arguments for retaining the wigs are varied.

One barrister said: ''The practice is important - particularly in these days, with the change over of flags taking place in only just over four years' time - not to allow any emblem of tradition to lapse if we want to have the legal profession continued unchanged for 50 years after 1997.

''It also indirectly underlines the independence of the judiciary, which is most important.'' Others believe that wigs play an important part in promoting the idea of anonymity and impartiality. ''Wigs provide a good disguise especially for prosecuting counsels who might not want to be recognised by litigants outside courtrooms,'' one barrister commented.

Hongkong Bar Association chairman, Miss Jacqueline Leong, QC, believes there are mixed feelings towards the tradition of wearing wigs in court.

''The real point is that it gives formality and solemnity to the proceeding, but that would still be present if the wig is done away while gowns, wig collars and bands are retained,'' she said.

But Miss Leong added that the formal attire was needed to separate judges and lawyers from the litigants. ''Respect for the law is no bad thing,'' she said.

One judge felt the same way. Courtroom costumes gave a certain feeling of ''pageantry, solemnity and formality to proceedings and occasions'' and that ''people see you as a judge by the outfits rather than a person''.

However, the judge continued: ''I think for older men who have sparse hair, [wearing a wig] is uncomfortable and scratchy. For me, I don't mind it one way or the other.

''On the other hand, some people feel that Hongkong is going back to China and that the costumes are a legacy of the 18th century and should to be replaced. Later, in my view, we may keep the gown but lose our wig.'' Both the Chief Justice, Sir Ti Liang Yang and Miss Leong have looked into the issue of Hongkong's legal dress code, post-97, and believe China will not impose any change.

''The formal attire is part of the aura of the legal system. The Chinese really do not have any strong views [on this issue],'' Miss Leong said.

''To a certain extent, perhaps the public is accustomed to the formal attire and doing away [the robes] is losing the bond of the common law system.''