I love police and court procedural movies and television, especially British ones.
Recently, I discovered In the Line of Duty, a British series that centres around an anti-corruption police unit, what we in North America would more familiarly know as internal affairs.
It is set in the present day, so it struck me as odd to see the barristers and judges in court scenes wearing powdered wigs.
Surely, I thought, they do not continue such an archaic tradition in real life.
Of course, there are good reasons for formality in a courtroom. There’s a great scene in the movie My Cousin Vinny (I know, all the scenes in that movie are great) when Vinny, a lawyer played by Joe Pesci first appears before the judge.
Vinny is wearing a leather jacket, bolo and cowboy boots and Judge Haller (played by the late great Fred Gwynn) originally mistakes him for a defendant.
“When you come into my court looking like you do, you not only insult me, but you insult the integrity of this court,” the judge says.
Vinny apologizes and the judge continues.
“The next time you appear in my court, you will look lawyerly. And I mean you comb your hair, and wear a suit and tie. And that suit had better be made out of some sort of… cloth.”
Apparently, in the U.K., not wearing a wig is still considered an insult to the court.
In Canada, we long ago gave up on the wig tradition. In fact, they were phased out before we were Canada, except in British Columbia and Newfoundland who held out until 1905 and 1949 respectively.
There is definitely utility to uniformity in the way officers of the court dress. Formal dress adds solemnity to proceedings and are emblematic of the intent that justice is supposed to be blind. You can almost feel the difference when you’re in the Supreme and appeal courts versus provincial courts.
In the provincial courts, while judges still wear robes, lawyers are free to be less formal. Most still wear suits and ties — or equivalently dressy attire for women — but I’ve seen much less formal clothing in Canadian provincial courtrooms.
I have never seen a lawyer take a dressing down from a judge for their attire in the manner of good ol’ Judge Haller, but it has happened in Windsor, ON.
In any event, there is a palpable change in solemnity going from provincial to Supreme court where all court officers must still wear the traditional waistcoat, white neck band and robes.
In this day and age, though, wigs seem a bit stuffy even for the British, especially when you consider the origin of what made them fashionable in the first place.
The sexually transmitted disease — which causes rashes, blindness, dementia, open sores and premature hair loss — became a widespread problem in Europe in the late 16th century. People started wearing wigs to cover up the fact they had the disease and it remained fashionable for society in general, particularly aristocrats for many decades. By the 1800s though, it was relegated mainly to the legal profession.
British courts have become more relaxed recently, but the tradition remains for criminal proceedings.
Tradition is a powerful thing.