Stephen Sedley

Q: How many judges does it take to change a light bulb?

A: Change?

Barely three centuries after the full-bottomed wig went out of fashion, and hardly two centuries after the sartorial demise of the short wig, Her Majesty’s judges are going to sit with bare heads. Well, almost. The short ‘bench’ wig will still be worn on formal occasions such as the Lord Chancellor’s Breakfast; judges sitting on criminal cases will continue to wear it daily; and while the change affects England and Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland will make their own arrangements. In the many Commonwealth countries where wigs and gowns are still the costume, notably in Africa and the Caribbean, no change seems likely. In the old Commonwealth wigs have been largely but not wholly abandoned. Canada dropped them long ago, New Zealand more recently. In Australia’s modern federal court they were initially worn, then abandoned; but in its state supreme courts the full English regalia are still worn. American judges were long ago steered away from wigs by Thomas Jefferson, who, having visited Westminster Hall, reported: ‘We must not have men sitting in judgment who look like mice peeping out of oakum.’ The Bar of England and Wales will have to decide whether to wear wigs to address now bareheaded benches, and what they decide will either amplify or silence the current demand of solicitor advocates to be allowed to wear wigs too.

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