The Nation (Nairobi)

Kenya: Why Do Judges And Magistrates Wear Funny Wigs And Robes?

opinion

Nairobi — Judges in the United Kingdom have abandoned the 300-year-old tradition of wearing wigs. From October, those hearing civil and family cases in England and Wales will don a new robe designed by a British designer better known for making funky clothes.

Lord Chief Justice scrapped the old-style wig and gown because he felt that they made judges look old-fashioned and out of touch with the 21st century.

Critics also say the horsehair wigs are itchy, hot, heavy, uncomfortable, unhygienic and often dirty because they are difficult to clean. And they don't always smell nice either.

Wigs are expensive, too. One can cost over £1,000 (Sh122,000). English judges get a stipend of nearly £15,000 (Sh1.83 million) to cover the cost of their wigs and robes, while barristers (advocates) must buy their own.

In Kenya, where we inherited the Englishman's law and its trappings, judges of the High Court and the Court of Appeal wear English-style wigs and robes. The robes are black or scarlet.

THE JUDGES WEAR BLACK ROBES when they are presiding over civil cases, and scarlet ones when presiding over criminal cases, or on ceremonial occasions.

Advocates who appear before the High Court or the Court of Appeal must themselves be robed.

They wear wigs and black robes with a white wing collar with bands hanging down the front of the neck.

The wigs and robes are worn for public show. Judges and advocates do not wear them when cases are held in chambers and in the absence of the public.

Now that the English judges are giving up their blonde and white wigs, will their Kenyan counterparts follow suit? They will be in good company.

Tanzania dispensed with the wigs in the 1960s, and when the East African Court of Justice was inaugurated nearly eight years ago, the judges decided against wearing such wigs.

In Pakistan, the judges did away with the wig in the 1980s.

In Canada, they do not wear it. In the US, they are free to select their own courtroom attire.

In England's highest court, the House of Lords, the judges wear no wigs or robes.

Even so, Kenyan judges are not likely to jettison their paraphernalia without a fight.

In the bad old days, the public joked that judges loved to wear their "lice-infested wigs" so that they could hide bribes in them. But there are serious and cogent reasons judges love their court garb. Many senior judges believe wearing a wig confers certain advantages.

They argue that although the wig is a colonial artifact, worldwide it is the emblem of the legal profession. They say the wig adds to the dignity and solemnity of court proceedings, helping to keep order. It makes the administration of justice impersonal and helps to emphasise the gravity of justice.

A former judge of the High Court, Mr Justice Richard Kuloba, spoke for many senior judges when he wrote in his 1997 book, Courts of Justice in Kenya, that litigants take more notice of a judge in a wig and robes than if he simply wears a lounge suit.

"Above all, the outward manifestation of authority contributes to the dignity and majesty of the law," he went on.

"It is important that the dignity of the superior court benches should be upheld. The manner of dress is one symbolical method of doing this."

"The scarlet or red robes, once the symbol of the majesty of royal authority, are now the symbol of the majesty of the law itself."

On a more practical level, the wig and the robe help to disguise the appearance of a judge, making it harder for criminal defendants and other litigants to recognise him out of court.

Judges wear full-bottom or nearly full-bottom wigs which cover much of their face, making them look impersonal.

The horsehair headgear thus gives them a degree of anonymity and protects them from confrontations outside the courtroom.

AS ONE JUDGE PUT IT, THE COSTUME also "strikes fear into the hearts of criminals everywhere". And, as another judge said during the inaugural Judiciary open day held in Nairobi in February, last year, perhaps in jest, judges like to intimidate.

The regalia gives them symbolic authority and sets them apart and they would not want to give them up for the sake of demystifying the Judiciary, he hinted.

While some judges favour jettisoning wigs because they are unsuitable for a tropical climate and contribute to the mystification of the Judiciary, many senior ones would not like to break with a tradition that seems to serve them well.

Our Judiciary also has a history of sticking to traditions and laws inherited from the British, even after the latter themselves have abandoned them. So the colonial-era wigs may be with us for quite some time, no matter how funny they look.

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