English Courts Mull Scrapping Mandatory Wigs for Barristers Amid Cultural Insensitivity Concerns

English courts are weighing whether to eliminate mandatory wigs for barristers due to concerns that the attire is “culturally insensitive.” 

“Following questions from barristers about wigs and hair discrimination, the Bar Council established a working group to examine court attire in the context of all protected characteristics,” a spokesperson for the Bar Council, which represents barristers in England and Wales, stated to The Telegraph. “The working group’s conclusions are currently being discussed with the judiciary as part of our regular dialogue on equality and diversity issues.”

Several Black barristers have filed complaints that the traditional headpieces discriminate against them. While no permanent change has been made, judges are evaluating suggestions made by the Bar Council, and a decision is expected at the earliest this fall, according to the Telegraph. 

“Senior judges are actively discussing the conclusions of their working group on court attire with the Bar Council,” a spokesperson for the judiciary also told the newspaper. “We welcome these discussions as part of our ongoing joint work on diversity and inclusion in the legal profession.”

Michael Etienne, a Black barrister with an afro hairstyle, labeled the mandatory wigs as hair discrimination, a form of racism, in 2022, igniting public discussion after he was instructed to wear the headpiece or face disciplinary action. The wigs, which are typically made of horsehair, are not necessary in all courtrooms. They haven’t been mandatory in family, civil, or Supreme Court cases since 2007.

Leslie Thomas KC, a Black legal expert in London, expressed to the Telegraph his belief that the mandatory wigs are a “ridiculous costume” that represents a “culturally insensitive climate” at the Bar.

“The wigs must certainly go. There isn’t any place in a modern society for barristers to be donning 17th-century fashion,” Thomas told the newspaper, dispensing away with other “archaic” court attire, such as wing collars, bands, and collarettes. 

He proposed a dress code that only mandates barristers to wear a black gown with smart business attire underneath, “would propel the profession into the 21st century.”

Rachel Bale, a mixed-race barrister with curly afro hair, highlighted the religious exemptions already in place for Sikhs who wear turbans and suggested to The Telegraph that barristers should be able to opt out for cultural reasons. She contended that wigs are frequently “not fit for purpose” for natural Black hairstyles.

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