UK Courts Weighing End to Mandatory Wigs for Barristers

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Bar Council’s Working Group on Court Dress

“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,” a spokesperson for the Bar Council, which represents barristers in England and Wales, stated to The Telegraph. “The findings of the working group are currently being discussed with the judiciary as part of our regular dialogue on equality and diversity matters.”

Complaints from Black Barristers

Several Black barristers have complained that the traditional headpieces discriminate against Afro-Caribbean hair. Although no permanent change has been decided, judges are reviewing proposals made by the Bar Council, with a decision expected this fall at the earliest, according to The Telegraph.

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“Senior judges are in active discussions with the Bar Council about the findings of their working group on court dress,” a judiciary spokesperson also told the newspaper. “We welcome these discussions as part of our continuing joint work on diversity and inclusion in the legal profession.”

Historical Context and Calls for Change

Michael Etienne, a Black barrister with an afro hairstyle, called the compulsory wigs a form of hair discrimination and racism in 2022, igniting public debate after he was ordered to wear the headpiece or face disciplinary action. The wigs, traditionally made of horsehair, are not required in all courtrooms. They have not been mandatory in family, civil, or Supreme Court cases since 2007.

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Modernizing Court Dress

Leslie Thomas KC, a Black legal professional in London, told The Telegraph he believes the required wigs to be a “ridiculous costume” that represents a “culturally insensitive climate” at the Bar.

“The wigs certainly should go. There isn’t any place in a modern society for barristers to be wearing 17th-century fashion,” Thomas told the newspaper, suggesting the judiciary also eliminate other “archaic” court dress such as wing collars, bands, and collarettes.

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Religious Exemptions and Cultural Sensitivity

Rachel Bale, a mixed-race barrister with curly afro hair, highlighted existing religious exemptions for Sikhs who wear turbans and Muslims who wear headscarves. She suggested to The Telegraph that barristers should be able to opt out for cultural reasons, arguing that wigs are often “not fit for purpose” for naturally Black hairstyles.

“Something overlooked often in Black culture is that your hair is so inexplicably important and it is completely interwoven with your identity,” she told the newspaper.

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Frequently Asked Questions

What is the Bar Council?

The Bar Council represents barristers in England and Wales, promoting high standards and supporting the rule of law.

Why are wigs considered culturally insensitive?

Wigs are considered culturally insensitive because they can discriminate against certain hair types, particularly Afro-Caribbean hair, making them difficult and uncomfortable for some barristers to wear.

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What changes are being proposed?

The proposed changes include abolishing the mandatory wearing of wigs and other archaic court dress items like wing collars, bands, and collarettes.

Who is Michael Etienne?

Michael Etienne is a Black barrister who has an afro hairstyle. He called the compulsory wigs a form of hair discrimination and racism in 2022.

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Are wigs still mandatory in all courtrooms?

No, wigs have not been mandatory in family, civil, or Supreme Court cases since 2007.

What is Leslie Thomas KC’s stance on court dress?

Leslie Thomas KC believes that the required wigs are a “ridiculous costume” and that there is no place for 17th-century fashion in a modern society.

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What religious exemptions currently exist?

Current religious exemptions allow Sikhs to wear turbans and Muslims to wear headscarves in court instead of wigs.

Why are wigs not suitable for Black hairstyles?

Wigs are often “not fit for purpose” for naturally Black hairstyles because they do not accommodate the unique texture and style of Afro-Caribbean hair, which is an important aspect of identity in Black culture.

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