Getting up and talking in front of people is one of these activities that does not often come naturally. I have been doing in different ways from around the age of 13 — the thick end of thirty years, now. I have done it in a wide range of forms — on stage in plays and public speaking competitions at school and university. Presentations to clients and to audiences of peers at work–related conferences and events. I have pitched for work, I have spoken at family celebrations. I have toasted friends and colleagues, I have been the anonymous voice telling audiences what to do on leaving the theatre. You think I’d be used to it by now.
Not really. It’s true that skills become more finely–honed by practice. It’s easier for me to flow whilst speaking now — the words come easier, take a shape and a structure, hit the points I wish to make and leave the audience (I hope!) content with what I have expressed and the way in which I have expressed it.
But I’m not a natural public speaker. The thought of standing up and saying things to other people used to scare the living daylights out of me. Actually doing it was not much better — and the window just before starting was particularly horrible. It took an effort of will for me to stand out there and speak. Some people can do this without apparent effort. Most people cannot.
But one of the things that made it easier was the preparation. On the stage, I’m in costume and makeup, performing the rôle. On a stage at a technical conference, I (now) have my own little rituals of preparation. Even toasting my Dad’s birthday, I still draw myself together, neaten the shirt, smooth the tie, prepare to be watched as much as listened to.
I read today that in the Supreme Court, that (if all advocates agree) the wearing of formal court dress — wig and gown — can be dispensed with. I fervently hope that this practice is seen to be an exception, and does not become extended to the lower courts. There are several reasons for me thinking this.
Firstly, the fact that the justices of the Supreme Court do not wear robes or wigs is a historical accident. The behaviour was imported to the Supreme Court from its predecessor body, the Judicial Committee of the House of Lords, which maintained the fiction that it was not actually a court and therefore its members dressed in day dress, not court robes.
Secondly, there is no scientifically reliable evidence on whether anyone thinks how advocates or judges dress (with one exception) matters. The exception is the Family Court, where the requirement to put vulnerable or young witnesses in as familiar an environment as a court can be made to be, should (rightly, I believe) be paramount. Apart from that though, there is no serious statistically rigorous research done on the question. And simplistic questioning will get the simplistic answer. But the level of answer is only limited by the questioner — I could frame a question that would get criminal cases at the Crown Court heard by someone wearing a black trackie, with lilac and red piping, no problem!
So now that change for historical reasons and for perception reasons are eliminated, I want to set out my stand. As a very junior potential future advocate, I like the wig and robe. Even though I have never worn one.
I believe it allows people to step beyond themselves, and assume the rôle.
We are asked to take whatever case we are given, whether we believe in it or not. We are asked to prosecute the potentially innocent and decent the potentially guilty, without fear or favour. The cab rank rule applies — we have no say in the cases that are given to us. And those are good and necessary things for the administration of justice. One of the counterbalances to this in my view, however, is that it is important, especially for those new to advocacy, is to physically have the act of being the advocate, and the act of becoming the individual again. The distinction between individual and job performed. And, for a lot of people (and I hope to be one of them) this is signified by the putting on of the wig and gown.
It’s the assumption of the rôle, the preparatory step that takes you beyond yourself as an individual. The donning of the wig and gown is the physical act that turns the person into the rôle. Game on, as it were.
At the levels of the Supreme Court, at which only the most competent, the most in command, the most skilled are ever likely to practise — I can see that there is not necessarily any need for the advocates and barristers there to be in court dress. However, in the lower courts, there are many people who take some comfort in the wig and gown. I know I will. It may seem to be a trivial thing, an anachronism in this day and age. But to those who wear it and those who aspire to wear it, it can represent something that is the representation of something more important than themselves as a person.
I realise this is an entirely emotional argument, and one that can be easily countered. Is it therefore a just a cypher that I look up to? Maybe I need to find another less physical mantra that allows me to go “game on”. But given that there is no statistically rigorous evidence that anyone finds the wig and gown to be an issue (let alone comparatively how important an issue), and given that I like its ability to step me out of “me” and into what I need to do — let’s ignore this for a bit. I’ll keep the wig and gown I hope to wear, if that’s all right. I’ll ditch them in an instant if if anyone can prove that people think that matters.
- Simon Bisson on OU Law Society Vice-President
- Mary Branscombe on To some, court dress is important.
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