Posted on May 20, 2024

Courts in Talks to Abandon Wigs Amid Claims They Are ‘Culturally Insensitive’

Adam Mawardi, The Telegraph, May 18, 2024

English courts are in talks to abandon compulsory wigs for barristers amid claims that they are “culturally insensitive”.

The Telegraph understands that the judiciary is poised to update its court dress code following complaints by some barristers that the traditional headpieces discriminate against those with Afro-Caribbean hair.

Judges are currently reviewing proposals made by the Bar Council, which represents barristers in England and Wales, with changes expected to be made this autumn at the earliest. No decisions have been made.

It follows widespread criticism from several black barristers who have called for compulsory wigs to be scrapped.

The potential changes come after Michael Etienne, a barrister who is black and has an afro hairstyle, sparked a public debate in 2022 after being ordered to wear a wig in court or face disciplinary action.

He branded the policy as hair discrimination, a form of racism.

A Bar Council spokesman said: “Following questions from barristers about wigs and hair discrimination, the Bar Council set up a working group to consider court dress in the context of all protected characteristics.

“The findings of the working group are currently being discussed with the judiciary as part of our regular dialogue on equality and diversity matters.”

Barristers are not required to wear wigs, traditionally made of horsehair, in all courtrooms. Since 2007, they have not been required in family, civil or Supreme Court cases.

However, Leslie Thomas KC said he hopes the judiciary will scrap barrister wigs once and for all.

He previously described wigs as a “ridiculous costume” that represents a “culturally insensitive climate” at the Bar.

Speaking to The Telegraph, Mr Thomas KC said: “The wigs certainly should go. There isn’t any place in a modern society for barristers to be wearing 17th-century fashion.”

He also called for the judiciary to abandon “archaic” court dress, such as wing collars, bands and collarettes.

Mr Thomas KC suggested barristers should be allowed to wear a black gown with smart business wear underneath.

He added: “I think a dress code like that would bring the profession into the 21st century.”

Rachel Bale, a mixed-race barrister with curly afro hair, said that although she enjoys wearing her wig, they are often impractical and “not fit for purpose” for naturally black hairstyles.

She said barristers should have the freedom to choose whether or not to wear the wigs for cultural reasons, similar to the religious exemptions already made for Sikhs who wear turbans and Muslims who wear headscarves.

She added: “Something overlooked often in black culture is that your hair is so inexplicably important and it is completely interwoven with your identity.”

A spokesman for the judiciary said: “Senior judges are in active discussions with the Bar Council about the findings of their working group on court dress.

“We welcome these discussions as part of our continuing joint work on diversity and inclusion in the legal profession.”