I wrote a little while ago about plans for most civil judges in England and Wales to cease wearing wigs, wing collars and bands, and to wear radically simplifed judicial gowns. The change was to come into effect from 1 January 2008, but it was postponed until 1 October because because an insufficient number of gowns had been made in time. The revised deadline was met, and from this month, judges in civil and family courts will wear the new dark blue gaberdine robe with velvet facings (right). The colour – gold, red or lilac – of the strips of cloth under the chin (which to my eye recall the eliminated tapes) indicate the level of judge. The designs, by Betty Jackson, raised some controversy when they were first announced, but they seem fine (if unexciting, and distinctly civilian rather than alien) to me.
The change is part of an effort to modernise the courts and make them more accessible for the public, witness and litigants alike. This is an entirely commendable policy, but I wonder whether simply swapping one set of robes for another really is likely to have that effect. Moreover, if courtroom dress really does serve to exclude, and change is necessary as a consequence, then why only deliver partially? This new position has all the hallmarks of a compromise, ending up with change for the sake of change, rather than being driven by an underlying need. It means that there is a confusing variation across courts for judges and advocates, rather than a single simple rule relating to court dress.
Ireland, in fact, has quite a simple rule for judicial dress. Reflecting our common law heritage, Irish judges do indeed wear gowns, but they are simple ones. According to Order 119 rule 2 of the Rules of the Superior Courts, 1986:
The Judges of the Superior Courts shall on all occasions, during the sittings, including sittings of the Central Criminal Court, wear the following costume, namely, a black coat and vest of uniform make and material of the kind worn by Senior Counsel, a black Irish poplin gown of uniform make and material, white bands, and a wig of the kind known as the small or bobbed wig.
So, there is a common, and simple, rule for the judicial dress of all the judges of the High Court, the Court of Criminal Appeal, and the Supreme Court. And there is a similar simple rule for judges of the District and the Circuit Courts.
However, Irish judges still retain wigs, wing collars and bands, which the English reforms have begun to phase out, and it may very well be that the time has come for Irish judges to simplify their judicial dress a little more – to phase out wigs, wing collars and bands, and perhaps also to phase out the black coat and vest, leaving a streamlined requirement simply of a black Irish poplin gown over an appropriate dark suit.