Master of the rolls

STEPPING into the airy Royal Courts of Justice in central London provides immediate respite from the blazing summer sun. But upstairs, in the stuffy courtrooms lined with old bookshelves, the heat is palpable. Judges and barristers sweat beneath their curly horsehair wigs and black robes. In one room, these are set aside, because the judge has decided to have the hearing “unrobed” on account of the heat.

Reforms in the past decade have done away with barristers’ wigs and robes in most civil cases, and even at the Supreme Court. But the antiquated costume is still in use for a hotch-potch of court proceedings, including all criminal cases and appeals. Its drawbacks are evident, even on cooler days. The wigs are itchy, especially for those with thinning hair. And they must be kept close to hand, for occasionally a barrister may face a sudden situation in which a wig and a robe are required, says Joyce Arnold, a barrister at One Essex Court chambers. Proceedings in commercial court, for example, are wig-free, but if an application to send someone to prison for contempt of court is made then wigs and robes must be donned. An urgent application to the Court of Appeal could also require a dash to the office for the ensemble.

In theory, a judge may decline to hear a barrister who flouts the dress code. In reality, that happens rarely, if at all. In 2014 a judge in Wales reprimanded a solicitor advocate who had pinned some badges to his gown and threatened not to hear him if he showed up again “looking like something out of Harry Potter”.

Another problem is the cost. Wigs are £560 ($742) apiece at Ede & Ravenscroft, a big legal outfitter. With the gown (£199) and extras like the wig tin (£270), a full kit costs more than £1,000—a lot for a barrister who is starting out. Some get lucky with hand-me-downs. Less picky barristers store their wigs in biscuit tins.

Despite all this, many barristers do not want the wigs and robes abolished. In 2007 the Bar Council, which regulates the profession, sought opinions on the matter. Two-thirds of the 2,500-odd barristers who replied wanted the outfit to stay. For some, getting fitted out at Ede & Ravenscroft is an eagerly awaited rite of passage. Others believe that the get-up makes it less likely that a vengeful criminal recognises them outside the courtroom. Some barristers feel that the outfit gives them more punch when they cross-examine witnesses. (Wigs and robes were banned in family court for being intimidating for children.)

As temperatures soar, some may be tempted to think again. But as the late Lord Donaldson, a senior judge, once put it: “There is no urgent need to go discarding something which has been out of date for at least a century.”