English courts consider nixing mandatory wigs for barristers amid concerns they’re ‘culturally insensitive’

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Courts in the United Kingdom are considering whether to nix mandatory wigs for barristers amid concerns the dress code requirement is ‘culturally insensitive.’ 

‘Following questions from barristers about wigs and hair discrimination, the Bar Council set up a working group to consider court dress in the context of all protected characteristics,’ a spokesperson for the Bar Council, which represents barristers in England and Wales, said in a statement to The Telegraph. ‘The findings of the working group are currently being discussed with the judiciary as part of our regular dialogue on equality and diversity matters.’

Several Black barristers have lodged complaints that the traditional headpieces discriminate against Afro-Caribbean hair. Though no permanent change has been decided, judges are reviewing proposals made by the Bar Council, and a decision is expected this fall at the earliest, the Telegraph reported. 

‘Senior judges are in active discussions with the Bar Council about the findings of their working group on court dress,’ a spokesperson for the judiciary also told the newspaper. ‘We welcome these discussions as part of our continuing joint work on diversity and inclusion in the legal profession.’

Michael Etienne, a Black barrister with an afro hairstyle, branded the compulsory wigs as hair discrimination, a form of racism, in 2022, sparking public debate after he was ordered to wear the headpiece or face disciplinary action. The wigs, traditionally made of horsehair, are not required in all courtrooms. They haven’t been compulsory in family, civil or Supreme Court cases since 2007.

Leslie Thomas KC, a Black legal professional in London, told the Telegraph he believes the required wigs to be a ‘ridiculous costume’ that represents a ‘culturally insensitive climate’ at the Bar.

‘The wigs certainly should go. There isn’t any place in a modern society for barristers to be wearing 17th-century fashion,’ Thomas told the newspaper, suggesting the judiciary do away with other ‘archaic’ court dress, as well, such as wing collars, bands and collarettes. 

He said a dress code that instead solely requires barristers to wear a black gown with smart business wear underneath ‘would bring the profession into the 21st century.’

Rachel Bale, a mixed-race barrister with curly afro hair, pointed to religious exemptions already in place for Sikhs who wear turbans and Muslims who wear headscarves, suggesting to The Telegraph that barristers should be able to opt out for cultural reasons. She argued that wigs are often ‘not fit for purpose’ for naturally Black hairstyles.

‘Something overlooked often in Black culture is that your hair is so inexplicably important and it is completely interwoven with your identity,’ she told the newspaper. 

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