I am very fond of my wig. Not just because I am bald. Not just because it has been with me for twenty-two years. I am very fond of my wig because, whilst it has never saved my life, it has got me out of a tight spot or two.
When I was quite junior I spent many months as the second prosecution advocate in a large conspiracy. The two trials lasted over many, many months. There were Silks involved, there was a fearsome judge and there were some proper villains. When I say “proper villains” I mean not just people on the wrong side of the law, I mean proper stop-at-nothing types. The sort of villains Guy Ritchie gets all misty eyed about.
The main man had a brother. The brother also fell into the category of “proper villain”. The brother saw me every single day of each of the trials. A few weeks after the guilty verdicts I found myself in the middle of Manchester, standing right next to said brother. I froze.
“I know you, don’t I?” he said.
My reply, amongst the stammers, was a cross between “I don’t think so” and “I hope not.”
“Yeah I do. Someat to do with our kid? Did I meet you at one of his parties?” he continued.
I assured him that he did not know me and then, in the style of a News of the World reporter in a brothel, made my excuses and left. He, of course, did know me. My face was incredibly familiar to him. But without the wig it was difficult for him to place me. My daily disguise had done its job.
It is not the only time. I had a man grip my arm in a restaurant corridor and talk about how he knew my face, knew that I was, like him, connected and that I was someone who should know to show him respect. What he did not realise was that I had prosecuted him a few months earlier.
There are times and circumstances when wigs and gowns should be removed. Appropriate accommodation made for the young and the vulnerable (having said that, when I introduce myself to young witnesses I often find the wig and gown is a great ice breaker) but otherwise I am very much in favour of them.
The Crown Court is a very different beast to the Magistrates’ Court. Not better than, but different. We tend to spend longer with the participants of a Crown Court trial. The stakes tend to be higher. You can spend a whole day or more cross examining a witness.
“We get on without them in the Mags” is not an answer to whether robes should be retained in the Crown Court.
And barristers in private practice are different to solicitors in private practice. We prosecute. (And yes, I know that solicitors prosecute some work for some agencies but I am talking about the routine prosecution of serious crime.) I value highly the anonymity my wig gives me. I really, really do.
That anonymity stretches to the jury. Good Crown Court advocacy in an even contest between skilled advocates is directed at the case being about the evidence, not being about the advocate. The wig and gown is a uniform. It creates uniformity. And it means that the jury do not draw a personal affiliation to one side or the other due to some clue from their appearance (which is why an advocate should not have medals, badges or ribbons on their gown or even a poppy on their lapel).
These are some of the reasons why I support retaining robes. There are others. There are, naturally, arguments against. These should be debated. Part of that debate, however, should NOT include the idea that the Bar want to retain robes as it is a throwback to public school boys wanting to dress up.
I have seen exactly that said, more than once. Now, I do not take offence at this terrible and lazy stereotype. I am not angry that, as a comprehensive school educated person, the idea that all barristers are, or consider themselves to be, toffs is ridiculous.
I can assure you all that my university days were not spent dressing fancy, eating swan and initiating myself with a pig. The only drinking club at my uni was the Squash Club. And it was a club where you played Squash (the university being Aberystwyth, which prohibited pubs opening on a Sunday so the only place to get a drink was the private members Squash Club which had two courts and went out of business shortly after a referendum allowed Sunday boozing).
Categorising the importance that some at the Bar place on robes as being a product of their public school backgrounds is, well, a bit like suggesting solicitors are only good for conveyancing and drafting wills.
As the debate seems to come around once more about robes those participating should, perhaps, consider whether there are greater challenges facing the CJS than they way we dress and, perhaps, should consider that a lazy stereotype does not take the debate very much further.
I like my wig. It is my uniform and invisibility cloak in one, itchy, horsehair contraption. Long may State educated school boys and girls aspire to wear them doing State funded work.