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Last Updated: Thursday, 8 May, 2003, 11:39 GMT 12:39 UK
Wigs facing death sentence
Current court uniform and one option
The courts' style makeover could see wigs and smocks go

The public is to be asked whether judges and other court staff should continue to wear wigs and gowns in court.

The consultation on modernising the court "uniform" comes despite the government already carrying out a 110,000 survey on the issue.

Baroness Scotland - a minister in the Lord Chancellor's department - said the government wanted a system that was robust and "appropriate to the modern world".

Her boss, Lord Chancellor Lord Irvine, added: "The 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."

'Anonymity'

But a spokesman for the Bar Council branded the consultation as a "PR exercise" adding that there were more important challenges facing the legal system.

"The closure of local courts and people's access to justice is far more important than how people are dressed when they get there," he said.

MAKEOVER M'LUD
What do the image experts make of the suggested new court room fashions?

"We must also not forget that traditional court dress benefits women advocates by offering some degree of anonymity, particularly when they may be dealing with serious and dangerous criminals."

Carolyn Kirby, president of the Law Society which represents 85,000 solicitors in England and Wales, said her organisation favoured abolishing wigs so court users should not feel "intimidated or alienated".

The government is refusing to state its preference over what barristers, judges and court officials wear.

The reasons for wigs currently being worn are that they are seen as providing identity, anonymity and authority for court staff.

The black attire dates back to the mourning period for Queen Anne who died in 1714.

Bald truth

Baroness Scotland said there was more to the courts than just keeping up traditions.

Current court uniform and one option
Dressing down? Suits could replace traditional costume

"Do the courts have proper sobriety ... making people appropriately confident that their stories will be heard."

She described the first time she had put on a wig saying it was an "unusual experience" that was "incredibly uncomfortable".

In the summer wigs became incredibly uncomfortable but in the winter some people "particularly follicly challenged men" said they kept them warm.

"Ultimately it's a bit like wearing a uniform," she said.

The survey's key finding was that most people - more than 60% - believed that court dress should be modified in some way.

Asked whether the danger of the public consultation was that people's opinions would be more informed by Perry Mason than by the reality of the English and Welsh courts, Baroness Scotland said that as a democrat people had a right to a say in their system of justice.

In the survey people were presented with a series of options showing photographs of court officials and a barrister in various attire: with and without a wig and without a gown in a smart suit.

The original survey involved speaking to 1,571 members of the public and 506 court users.

Of those questioned 53% believed dress should be changed for criminal judges, 64% for civil judges, 61% for barristers, 63% for court ushers and 81% for court clerks.

Hair tomorrow?

Just a third of people wanted civil judges and barristers to keep their wigs on.

If those in favour of modernising barristers' dress, 34% said both wigs and gowns should go while 27% said only wigs should be got rid of and gowns retained.

Members of the legal profession are also to have their views on dress taken into account.

According to the survey, some of those consulted said wigs were a symbol of authority although others saw them as "daft".

The final response date for the consultation is 14 August.

To take part go to www.lcd.gov.uk and click on 'What's new?'.




WATCH AND LISTEN
The BBC's George Eykyn
"Public support for dumping the wig and gown is growing"



SEE ALSO:
Irvine's role under fire
10 Feb 03  |  Politics
Profile: Lord Irvine
09 Feb 03  |  Politics



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