Removing of the Robes

The Honourable Wayne Martin, Chief Justice of Western Australia announced in November 2009 that as of 1 January 2010, the Supreme Court and District Court Judges would stop wearing wigs in court.

Further, lawyers appearing before them will also abandon their wigs. Martin also announced that the Supreme Court of Western Australia will wear black robes for all court sittings as opposed to traditional red robes in criminal matters.

The legal profession is renowned for its dashing look with professionals donning horsehair wigs, flowing black robes and the white jabot (the “bib” worn with the robe).

Robes and wigs have been an inherited link from our English past and the wearing of the robe has been in the English legal system since the time of Edward III (1327-77). The robes being based on the correct dress for attending the Royal Court.

Wigs made their first appearance in a courtroom purely and simply because they were being worn outside on the street and became popular around the reign of Charles II (1660-1685). Court attire is based on what was essential wear for a polite society.

Martin’s decision has divided the legal profession and the public as a whole. Many see the wigs and the robe as providing anonymity and formality, while others see the attire as a symbol of a legal system out of touch with the 21st Century.

In a practical sense many further feel that court attire is important in terms of preserving a practitioner’s separateness from their court appearance to who they are outside, with popular concern within the legal circle centring  around the fear of being recognised by disgruntled defendants.

Martin stated “I have publicly stated since my appointment that I did not believe the wearing of traditional European court attire was appropriate in Western Australia in the 21st Century.” Martin further noted that “the Supreme Court and District Court of Western Australia are vibrant contemporary Australian institutions and these changes reflect his.”

The arguments for anonymity in the profession, verses the “modernising” of the profession are often heated amongst many members of the profession.

The Legal Practice Board has offered a forum for practitioners to voice their opinions on the “dressing down” of the courts via a survey which practitioners may participate in. The survey closed on 19 February 2010 and the results are to be collated and provided to the Chief Justice.

One thing is for sure the wig has left the building, only time will tell whether this dramatic change to the Western Australian legal system will lower the ceremonial and traditional position of the court in our society.