The vexed issue of how judges should be attired remains the subject of a colourful debate.
So it’s pink! That’s the colour to be worn in court by High Court masters, Family Division district judges, bankruptcy registrars and costs judges when they don their new robes next month, 16 years after the government first proposed reforming court dress.
You can imagine the conversations in the judges’ working party. ‘Isn’t pink just a little too, well, feminine?’ somebody must have asked. ‘Some of us are feminine,’ a lady judge would have barked back across the table.
By comparison, the other judges were easy to please. For heads of division and Court of Appeal judges, nothing less than gold would do. High Court judges have worn red for centuries and were not going to change now. Blue seemed a reasonable choice for district judges, since green would have suggested they were seeking inspiration from London’s Tube map.
Those colours were announced by the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Phillips, in May, but the colour-code for masters and registrars was ‘yet to be decided’ until pink was announced in a practice direction on 31 July.
In case readers imagine that the lowest rank of judges will look like faded cardinals or the late Barbara Cartland, I should explain that all these colours will appear only on tabs incorporated just below the neckline – similar in appearance to the bands worn by barristers. The remainder of the robe will be of midnight blue gabardine with facings in navy blue velvet. It incorporates a vestigial detachable white collar for male judges and something equally washable, though frilly, for the ladies.
But a much more significant change was concealed within the new practice direction. We were told in May that circuit judges sitting in the High Court would wear the new civil gown with lilac tabs. But Lord Phillips seems to have been persuaded that this was a bad idea. Now, circuit judges will wear the same gown when acting up as they do in their own courts – keeping their dark-blue robes, dating from 1919, and colour-coded sashes, dating from 1971. The only difference is that they will no longer wear a wing collar (or soft collarette) and bands – but these do not sit well with the circuit judges’ robes in any case.
So, although High Court judges have thrown out costumes that go back to the 14th century, circuit judges sitting alongside them will wear robes that still retain their historic references – such as the tippet, or sash. This was ‘in accordance with their current wish’, the Lord Chief Justice said in May – as if to suggest that circuit judges would soon see sense.
Judges will no longer wear wigs when hearing civil cases. It’s not clear what the judge is expected to do when asked to decide whether a case is civil or criminal, a distinction that may be far from obvious and which can affect rights of appeal.
When trying criminal cases, High Court judges will wear their winter robes throughout the year. This may be bad news for the stoats whose coats are traditionally used for the miniver with which these robes are trimmed – although I’m assured it’s now rabbit-fur. Why not keep the lighter summer robes, though, which are faced in silk?
Barristers and solicitors with rights of audience will continue to wear wigs and gowns pretty much as they do now, so we can expect to see wigless judges in civil trials and appeals being addressed by bewigged advocates.
The Bar Council has decided that business suits will be worn by barristers in the Commercial, Admiralty and Technology courts – as well as in anything less than a trial in the Queen’s Bench Division. In the Family Division, business suits will normally be worn by both advocates and judges.
Since the beginning of this year, solicitors have been permitted to wear wigs whenever these would be worn by counsel. No change to this rule is expected, but wigs are still optional for those solicitors who are not Queen’s Counsel. Michael Caplan QC, a partner in Kingsley Napley, tells me that everyone is now much more relaxed about solicitors wearing wigs and robes than they were five years ago, when he was negotiating with the bar and judiciary as chairman of the Solicitors Association of Higher Court Advocates. ‘The bar no longer regards the wig as the unique badge of a barrister,’ he says. ‘They recognise we all have to work together.’
Wigs will be retained by all judges and advocates in the criminal courts. ‘They mark the seriousness of the proceedings,’ Caplan adds. But of course they also make it harder for those involved in the case to recognise the judge and counsel off duty.
It seems clear that Lord Phillips was keen to introduce uniformity across the different courts – even though this means that those civil judges on the bottom rung will have to wear robes for the first time. But the new uniforms are far from uniform because barristers and circuit judges have stoutly defended their traditions.
When Lord Phillips becomes senior law lord next month, he will sit wearing his normal stylish business clothes. With his fellow judges, he must decide whether the law lords should start wearing robes when they become justices of the Supreme Court next year. I suppose he may try to export the new costumes, perhaps with white tabs this time. But I don’t imagine judges from Northern Ireland and Scotland will fancy wearing a peculiarly English robe.