Wigging Out on British Legal Customs

If you enjoy watching television programs that deal with the law, you have a good idea of what a courtroom looks like. It’s relatively easy to spot the lawyers, due to their professional attire. As a general rule, the judge is the only person who is wearing a black robe. The attorneys address the judge as, “Your Honor.” The lawyers are referred to as “lawyer,” “attorney,” “counselor,” or a few choice words that would earn you a mouthful of soap if you spoke them in the presence of your mother.

This assumes, of course, that you are watching a show about an American courtroom. If that is what you are used to, seeing the same drama play out in the United Kingdom will be surreal. The courtroom looks modern, but the people do not. It is as if members of the legal community from the 18th century have been plucked out of time and brought to the present. They dress funny. They wear wigs. They have unusual titles.

This is what you need to know so you aren’t hopelessly confused or distracted by what takes place in a British courtroom.

Lawyers, Attorneys, Solicitors and Barristers — Oh My!

The United States has one broad classification for those who practice law: ”bottom feeders” “lawyers.” Generally, the term is used interchangeably with “attorney,” but there is a subtle difference. A lawyer is someone who has been trained in the law. In other words, he or she has graduated from a law school and has a Juris Doctor (J.D.) degree. An attorney is someone who is authorized to practice law. In the USA, that happens upon passing the Bar Exam and being admitted to the Bar. (And no, it isn’t true that being admitted to the Bar means that they give up their citizenship, as we discussed in this article.)

With a few notable exceptions, such as patent and admiralty law, U.S. lawyers are generally authorized to practice law in all forms. An attorney may advise clients, prepare legal documents, commence civil litigation, defend against criminal charges, and appeal judgments to a higher court. The key limitation upon handling a matter is the lawyer’s level of competency in that situation. In terms of authorization to write a multi-million-dollar contract or represent a client in court for a death penalty case, there is no difference between a lawyer who has been practicing for 50 years and someone who was just admitted to the Bar yesterday.

The U.K. has different classifications for its legal professionals. They consist of barristers and solicitors. Simply put, barristers primarily represent clients in court. Solicitors tend to perform the majority of their work in a law office.

We are talking about the law, however, so naturally, there are exceptions. Solicitors can obtain “rights of audience,” allowing them to represent clients in court. This permits a solicitor to do many of the same things a barrister can do. Barristers still tend to be able to work in higher levels of court than their solicitor counterparts.

Most solicitors do the majority of their work outside of the courtroom. Their work consists of:

  • Advising clients on legal issues
  • Conducting negotiations in an attempt to reach an agreement on legal issues
  • Drafting and reviewing legal documents, such as contracts

What’s Up With the Wigs?

Differences in laws and procedure notwithstanding, the most visible difference between US and UK courts is the dress code. All of the key players in the British legal system wear elaborate costumes consisting of wigs, robes, and funny neck thingies.

British barristers, sporting their peruses and jabots

All the online authorities point to a 1625 academic paper entitled “The Discourse on Robes and Apparel” as the reason for the antiquated attire. If it is such an important document, you would think there would be an online version available. If there is, we have been unable to find it. This leads us to wonder if it wasn’t all some elaborate practical joke hatched by some 17th-century undergrads who wanted to deflate the egos of their law school counterparts.

Regardless, “The Discourse on Robes and Apparel” laid out what the well-dressed gentleman should wear when in court. It allowed for a more colorful courtroom than what we typically see today. The color of barrister and judicial was dictated by the season and the type of legal case. Some of the approved colors were black, violet, green, and scarlet. The color customs have changed periodically over the past 400 years. Today, judicial robes tend to be more colorful than their barrister counterparts.

The first courts where wigs were common was in France under the reign of Louis XIV. Although they are now associated with public officials of impeccable moral character, their origins were for less than honorable reasons. In the 17th century, a balding scalp more easily revealed whether that person was afflicted with syphilis. When Louis XIV began sporting a wig to disguise his condition, the trend caught on. The custom spread just as quickly as the disease and became ingrained as part of the legal community.

Sir James Richard William Goss, judge of the High Court of England and Wales

The proper name for a legal wig is a “peruke.” A barrister’s peruke is a short horsehair piece with curls on the side. Judges typically have a short bench peruke for everyday legal proceedings and a full-length version used on formal occasions.

Perukes aren’t cheap. The full-head long-hair style worn by judges can cost up to $3,000. A barrister’s head covering goes for around $500. We found this one for $450 on Amazon. Of course, if you aren’t a stickler for having one made of horsehair, you can get this judge’s wig for $22.95. Realistically, who is going to tell a judge to go home and change his hair? Why not have fun and go with the mullet version?

Another element of courtroom attire is the jabot. Also known by less sophisticated names such as “court bib,” “neck doily,” or “band,” it is a bib that hangs from a stiff, white collar. Its purpose originated out of a desire to conceal the wearer’s collar. To our minds, if the collar isn’t supposed to be seen, the effect can be achieved by foregoing a dress shirt and simply wearing a Spider-Man t-shirt under the barrister’s robe.

By the 1860s, the jabot had developed into the two simple rectangles, which are still worn by barristers today. Some say that the rectangles are even said to represent the tablets on which the Ten Commandments were written.

No one does tradition better than our British brethren. Say what you will about the courtroom attire, there’s no doubt that it is well steeped in tradition. That doesn’t mean that it is here to stay, however. As of 2007, perukes are no longer required during family or civil court appearances or when appearing before the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom. They are still mandatory in criminal cases. Although any barristers choose to continue to wear them in civil settings, the peruke’s days may be numbered.

Then again, lawyers may find perukes to be helpful. When they consider all the insults that are directed toward members of their profession, they may decide that it is preferable to have people just make fun of their funny hair.

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