British judges and their love affair with judicial wigs
It ’s always been a paradox to me: Why do members of two of the most respected professions – the clergy and the judiciary – have such an absurd dress code? Even the men perform their duties wearing a floor-length dress.
I scratch my head even more over “court dress” in the United Kingdom. Judges and barristers there go beyond one step further and don wigs. These judicial wigs are not fashionable toupees to cover a bald head. A British high court judge wears a full bottomed wig that makes him or her look, if not like the comic hero Underdog, at least like a beagle.
So why do judges routinely plunk down a thousand pounds or more to buy wigs of woven horsehair just to spruce up their noggins? It’s all history and tradition, respect and recognition, dignity and decorum.
Insects infest the judicial wigs in 19th century India
It should come as no surprise, then, that the first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court in Madras, India, insisted the justices there wear the wigs they knew back home in Great Britain. Sir Thomas Andrew Lumisden Strange (1756-1841) served as Chief Justice in Madras from 1800 to 1817 and had a bulk order of judicial wigs shipped in from England. But thanks to some six-legged critters, Strange’s judicial wig rule didn’t last very long.
On the way to India, reported the 1828 issue of The New Monthly Magazine, some of these creatures amused themselves by infesting the Chief Justice’s wig.
These cockroaches ate a large hole through the wig, so that one of Justice Strange’s ears poked out ridiculously when he put it on. While the rest of the court tried to suppress its laughter, Justice Strange readjusted his wig so his ear wouldn’t stick out. He had to pull it so far to the side that his other ear stuck out.
Sir Henry Gwillim, another justice known as an “irascible Welshman,” then donned his wig. An observer present that day in court, who recalled the court dress in Madras as “absurd” and “intolerable,” especially for the climate, noted that Sir Gwillim was the only justice who maintained composure in his horsehair crown.
Sir Benjamin Sullivan, a third justice, placed one of the judicial wigs on his head, only to discover that a bunch of these creatures had staked out the real estate first.
An immense host of mosquitoes had bedded down in the labyrinths of Sullivan’s wig. They began swarming and buzzing as soon as he put it on. Justice Sullivan “snatched it off in a sudden fit of indignation, and threw it, with an oath that was somewhat extra-judicial, into the middle of the court,” the observer wrote.
The two other justices followed suit and the wigs landed on a pile in the floor. It was one of those rare instances in which hilarity – and insects – briefly ruled the courtroom. The justices roared in laughter. The observer wrote that it took quite a while for the court to regain its composure. “No attempt was made to inflict the same nuisance on the barristers,” he wrote.
The story even made international news. A German criminal justice journal reported the incident.
As far as I know, that was the end of judicial wigs in India.
Would it be too much to hope that the rest of the world’s bewigged judiciary follow suit? But you will excuse me until next week, while I take the time to remove some of these from my bonnet.
Do you think British judges and barristers should wear judiciary wigs? Are the outdated? Or a worthy tradition? And do they make sense in a tropical climate?
Literature on point:
“Society in India, No. II,” New Monthly Magazine, Part 1. 327-340 (1828) [quotes]
“Die richterlichen Perücken,” Annalen der deutschen und ausländischen Criminal-Rechtspflege 159-160 (1828)