Ban 'ridiculous' 17th century court wigs, says leading black barrister

Barrister wigs are ‘culturally insensitive’, Britain’s top black QC claims- after colleague with an afro was ordered to wear one or face disciplinary action

  • Leslie Thomas, QC, said the wigs, or perukes, are ‘fashioned for caucasian hair’
  • Top black barrister said they were ‘nonsense’ and do not belong in 21st century 
  • Barrister Michael Etienne was told he could be sanctioned for not wearing one 
  • The wigs were fashionable in the 17th century to hide baldness, linked to syphilis 

Britain’s traditional 17th century court wigs are ‘culturally insensitive’ and should be banned, a leading black barrister has claimed. 

Leslie Thomas, QC, said the white Georgian-style hair pieces look ‘ridiculous’ on black advocates and are ‘fashioned for caucasian hair’. 

It came after Michael Etienne, a black barrister with an afro, was told he risked being in contempt of court if he refused to wear one – before suggesting the tradition was an example of ‘hair discrimination’. 

Mr Etienne, a specialist in public and human rights cases, had written to the Bar Council to seek guidance on the issue. 

The junior barrister tweeted: ‘Asked the Bar Council what could happen if, as a Black Barrister with an Afro, I declined to wear my wig. 

‘The answer included: ‘contempt of court’, ‘wasted costs’ and various potential breaches of Code of Conduct. ‘Unless the insistence was discriminatory”

Michael Etienne (pictured) was told he risked being in contempt of court if he refused to wear a wig – before suggesting the tradition was an example of ‘hair discrimination’

Leslie Thomas (pictured), QC, said the white Georgian-style hair pieces look ‘ridiculous’ on black advocates and are ‘fashioned for caucasian hair’.

Mr Thomas, one of the most high profile black barristers in the country, branded court wigs ‘nonsense’ and said they should be scrapped entirely (Pictured: Mr Thomas with braided hair while giving evidence on at the Grenfell Tower inquiry, representing a group of survivors and bereaved families, in Paddington, London, July 2020)

The trend of wearing white wigs was started by Louis XIV of France. 

In the mid-17th century, a balding scalp was considered as a sign that someone had contracted syphilis.  

By the 16th century, the sexually transmitted disease had reached epidemic levels across western Europe. Sufferers could endure rashes, joint pains, and fever, before eventually going blind, experiencing heart problems, mental disorders, nerve problems and eventually dying. 

Hair loss is a rare symptom of the disease, which can occur in the secondary stage of the infection. 

But to distance himself from any association with syphilis, the king disguised his scalp using a wig. 

This trend quickly spread throughout the upper and middle-classes in Europe including to Britain where Charles II followed suit. 

The courts, however, were slower to adopt the trend, with many continuing to sport their natural hair in their judicial portraits. 

By 1685, full, shoulder-length wigs became part of proper court dress, because barristers were also considered as part of middle-class society.

By the 1820s, wigs had gone out of fashion but coachmen, bishops and those in the legal profession continued to wear them. 

Coachmen and bishops stopped in the mid-1830s but again the courts kept the tradition.

In 2007, wigs were no longer required during family or civil court appearances or when appearing before the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom. 

Wigs are still worn in criminal cases and some barristers choose to wear them during civil proceedings. 

There are a number of reasons why barristers still wear wigs.

The most accepted is that it brings a sense of formality and solemnity to proceedings. By wearing a gown and wig, a barrister represents the rich history of common law and the supremacy of the law over the proceedings. There have also been arguments that wearing a wig allows a visual separation between the law and those before it.

A judge is able to suspend court dress at his own disposal, perhaps where it may intimidate children in the court or during hot periods of weather. Therefore, it really is about symbolism more than any rule. 

Source: The Lawyer Portal  

He added hashtag #HairDiscrimination to his tweet. 

It comes amid growing calls to outlaw hair discrimination – as many black adults and schoolchildren continue to suffer criticism if they don dreadlocks, braids or afros, with bosses or schools deeming the hairstyles to be ‘unprofessional’ due to deep-rooted eurocentric concepts of neatness.  

Etienne added: ‘To be clear, I didn’t ask for dispensation. I asked the Bar Council for an indication of whether I might be at risk of sanction.’

He said the Bar Council ‘doesn’t make the rules but it is supposed to be the representative body, So, we might hope it takes proactive steps to address this issue in the interests of its black members’.  

When a fellow Twitter user suggested Mr Etienne ‘tie back’ his hair, he replied: ‘Afro doesn’t just ‘tie back’. 

‘Tie it down, maybe. But I object to restraining my hair as a condition of going to work.’ 

Sam Mercer, head of equality at the Bar Council, told the Times that the organisation was now ‘absolutely’ prepared to ‘take soundings’ on the issue. 

The white wigs worn by barristers, known as perukes, are seen by some as a symbol of authority, and offer a level of anonymity to the QCs wearing them. 

They are no longer worn in most court hearings in England and Wales, but they are mandatory in the crown court, certain civil hearings and the High Court and Court of Appeal.  

But Mr Thomas, one of the most high profile black barristers in the country, branded them ‘nonsense’ and said they should be scrapped entirely.

He told the Times: ‘Wigs are 17th century male fashion, to have them in the 21st century is nonsense.’   

Peter Herbert, a former part-time judge and barrister, added that he never wore a traditional wig or forced advocates appearing before him wear them.

‘The sky didn’t fall in, juries were happy, barristers did not get recognised by criminals and justice was still done,’ he said.

Alphege Bell, who was the first ever barrister to appear in court with dreadlocks, suggested there should be a law that recognises the impact wearing the wigs can have on black barristers. 

He cited the Create a Respectful and Open Workplace for Natural Hair Act, which was passed in California in 2019 to outlaw race-related hairstyle discrimination.

‘It’s about seeing how processes and practices in the workplace have an adverse effect on those with non-traditional hairstyles, and giving them protection and comfort, so they can feel proud and confident that they won’t be subjected to adverse treatment because of the appearance of their hair,’ he said.

Mr Bell added that if the courts want people from diverse backgrounds to become barristers, ‘should we make adjustments to ensure that our processes and tradition don’t adversely affect them?’

In an interview with the Times last year, he said being a barrister ‘shouldn’t be about how your hair falls.’ 

He said: ‘We shouldn’t live in fear because our hair isn’t a certain way. 

‘This job should be about intellectual excellence and ability; it shouldn’t be about how your hair falls. 

‘The configuration of your hair doesn’t add to the strength of your argument.’ 

Meanwhile family law barrister Yaa Dankwa Ampadu-Sackey,  who wears her hair in braids, tweeted that the traditional wigs were ‘not always compatible’ with her hairstyle and could make her feel uncomfortable, potentially affecting her performance in court.

Another female barrister, using the Twitter name KingTriiciia, posted: ‘Until we address the deeply rooted anti-blackness at the Bar, nothing will change. 

‘All the talks, inclusive and equality projects mean nothing when the root is rotten.’    

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