To some, court dress is important.

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[1]. 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.

Take your change and keys out your pock­et. You won’t nervously play with them in your pock­et. For the love of god, think how it looks…”

1 thought on “To some, court dress is important.”

  1. I always felt like that about sub fusc at Oxford; nice to have a cos­tume for the form­al moments…

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