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Do melted robe-clad barristers muster a sense of occasion?

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legal matters

During this year's heatwave I bumped into a colleague in chambers. His appearance was such that I was obliged to ask him what he had been doing. Had he been running in his suit or had he simply stood fully dressed under a shower? No, he told me, he had only been in court, then paused and added ominously, 'robed'.

Ah yes, of course, robed. It all came back to me.

Rushing back to court in the summer heat, pelting up the three flights of stairs to what are now the Technology and Construction Courts, late back from the short adjournment, hot and breathless, only to don horse-hair wig and thick stuff gown over my suit, and sit and steam gently for the remainder of the day's proceedings. Or standing in an unventilated court room, slowly melting in the heat, while shouting to make oneself heard over the wholly disproportionate din generated by a small and completely inadequate desk fan.

There is no doubt that airless court rooms, barristers' robes and a heatwave combine to make very uncomfortable wearing.

But help may be at hand.

For some time a radical body rejoicing in the name of Lawyers against Wigs (or LAW ) has been campaigning to modernise the court dress worn by barristers and judges. The familiar arguments against traditional court garb are well rehearsed: it is antiquated and unnecessary; it makes the legal profession an easy target for ridicule.

But there are other practical considerations with which the public will not be so familiar. Firstly, it is expensive. Newly qualified (and penniless) barristers who stride with pride into Ede & Ravenscroft to order their wig, wig tin, gown, wing collars, neck bands and blue bag to carry it all in, face a bill of nearly £500. It is also bulky.When setting off by train for court in Leeds, or Maidstone or Truro, weighed down with the case papers, text books and authorities, robes are an unwelcome added burden. Very often potentially useful texts are jettisoned in order to carry the kit.

Court dress does, however, have its supporters. Arguments in favour include anonymity, or at least disguise. This is particularly important in criminal trials where both the judge and counsel for the prosecution may not want to be readily identified by the defendant or their friends and family. There is also felt to be a need to generate a sense of occasion in the court room so as to emphasise, particularly to the witnesses, the importance of what is going on. It is a moot point, of course, as to whether a witness is more likely to tell the truth when questioned by a barrister in 18th-century fancy dress than by someone in a suit, but speaking personally I can say that there is nothing quite so scary as confronting the three judges of the Court of Appeal in full regalia.

Then there is the general feeling that the punters like their 'brief ' to turn up looking the part. But when all is said and done you only have to sit through a few trials about concrete, the effect of the final certificate or the duties of a quantity surveyor, where attendance at court is limited to those who are closely involved with the subject matter and who are no strangers to proceedings of that type, to wonder whether anyone really cares whether we are robed or not.

Against this background, the Lord Chancellor has embarked upon a review of court dress, canvassing views on whether to do away with just the wig, some of the more elaborate trimmings sported by judges or scrap the whole lot, in either criminal or civil proceedings or both. The Lord Chancellor is not very well placed on this one. His own silk stockings seem to be one of the main reasons why the present government wants to abolish his position altogether and were the subject of a personal jibe from the prime minister about 'women's tights'.

In the meantime, television dramas continue to cash in on the legal finery, while real-life barristers, coping with heavy robes in the heat, continue to look as if they have just had a shower in their suit.

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