Monday, 25th September 2023

Debate over traditional wig-wearing by judges, lawyers’

By Ameh Ochojila, Abuja
28 March 2023   |   3:03 am
The wig and gown are the gaps adorned by legal practitioners and judges in courts. It is a compulsory robe worn by lawyers when appearing before superior courts of record in Nigeria. The superior courts of record are established by the Constitution of Nigeria.

Lawyer’s wig and gown

The wig and gown are the gabs adorned by legal practitioners and judges in courts. It is a compulsory robe worn by lawyers when appearing before superior courts of record in Nigeria. The superior courts of record are established by the Constitution of Nigeria.

Also, the age-long tradition of white, horsehair locks worn by high court judges was bequeathed to Nigerian judges by Britain as it did to all its colonies. This traditional dress has continued unhindered even though British lawyers have stopped wearing them.

Judges and lawyers in Nigeria, Kenya, Zimbabwe, Ghana, Malawi and a few others have continued to retain the old tradition of wearing wigs and gowns decades after the end of colonial rule. However, new generations of African jurists are now asking: Why are the continent’s most prominent legal minds still wearing the trappings of the colonisers?

In some commonwealth countries like Canada, South Africa, India and Pakistan, the judges and attorneys don’t wear wigs. Even in Britain where the tradition originated, there are reforms going on in that respect.

For example, judges in England and Wales have stopped wearing wigs in civil and family cases and they only now wear very simplified gowns. It is only lawyers appearing in criminal courts who continue to wear wigs and black gowns. Furthermore, since November 2011, lawyers appearing before the British Supreme Court and the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council are no longer required to wear robes. So, the British people are gradually casting aside the vaunted “time-honoured” wig and robes.

American lawyers only wear suits to court as opposed to the wig and gown. Analysts and judicial watchers have viewed the continued wearing of wigs and gowns as the inability of the former colonies to restructure their legal institutions to reflect their cultures and local needs.

They argued that the wigs serve as a daily reminder of Nigeria’s failure to reform its inherited institutions. The wigs, they said, make a mockery of the judicial system in terms of ideology, local traditions, aesthetics and independence. The robes are said to be itchy, heavy and uncomfortable for most of Africa’s climate and weather.

Economically, the wig is mostly imported, which constitutes a capital flight from Nigeria. In Uganda, an investigation conducted into the cost of importing wigs, indicated that each one cost $6,500.

As a measure to liberate themselves, some African countries are taking steps to let off the former colonial trapping. For instance, Justice Luke Malaba of Zimbabwe has set up a Judicial Wigs Committee (JWC) to investigate whether the hairpiece, worn at official functions by judges of higher courts, is still necessary.

The announcement was made by the Judicial Services Commission (JSC), calling on the committee to solicit contributions from stakeholders and citizens.

The decision follows a challenge by the Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights (ZLHR), which argued that besides being a relic of colonial Rhodesia, they are intimidating and expensive.

Some lawyers, though argued that the robe gives the profession the seriousness it desires. But the question is: must lawyers wear wigs and gowns to give seriousness to the profession? Another question is: at the magistrate’s court where wigs and gowns are not worn, does it make the magistrates’ courts less efficient in dispensing justice?

An Abuja-based lawyer Monday Ikpe said it is part of the inherited colonial legacy. According to the lawyer, the wig and gown is just an inheritance from the British colonialist and nothing more.

Ms. Ifunanya Francese, also a lawyer, said the legal profession is noble, so it should be sustained. The lawyer added that the robe gives distinction and nobility to the profession and makes it easy to distinguish between lawyers and non-lawyers in court.

She further argued that the majority of lawyers are not protesting against the garment, and therefore, it should be continued. According to her, besides the nobility it evinces for the profession, there is no other benefit.

Francese, however, added that most professions have a dress code and, therefore lawyers should retain theirs.

Aneke Vincent, an Enugu-based lawyer said it is part of the paraphernalia of the profession, adding that being inherited from Britain makes no difference.

“I don’t have anything against the wig and gown we wear as lawyers. Nigeria is made up of different tribes, traditions and cultures, including mode of dressing. As an Igbo man, I may be comfortable with the suit but is the Hausa man comfortable with it? So, the wig and gown cut across tribes. You say it’s inherited from the British. Yes, it is and so? The country itself, the name and every other thing about Nigeria are inherited from Britain,” he submitted

He stressed that the robe has helped to create uniform dress for Nigerian lawyers, considering that the country is ethnically diverse, adding that the robe eliminated clashes of tribal display of dresses during court sessions.

“The dress has helped Nigeria with different tribes and traditions to maintain a common ground,” he declared.

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