British courts consider abolishing mandatory wigs for barristers amid 'cultural sensitivity' concerns

Black legal professionals argue traditional horsehair headpieces are discriminatory and culturally insensitive.

British courts consider abolishing mandatory wigs for barristers amid 'cultural sensitivity' concerns
AP Photo/Lefteris Pitaraki
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The Bar Council, which represents barristers in England and Wales, has set up a working group to review court dress requirements following complaints from black barristers who argue that mandatory wigs discriminate against Afro-Caribbean hair. The findings of the working group are currently under discussion with the judiciary, and a decision is expected no earlier than this fall.

In 2022, Michael Etienne, a black barrister with an afro hairstyle, sparked public debate after being ordered to wear the traditional horsehair wig or face disciplinary action, branding the requirement as hair discrimination and a form of racism. The wigs are not compulsory in all courtrooms, having been optional in family, civil, and Supreme Court cases since 2007, Fox News reports.

Leslie Thomas KC, a black legal professional in London, described the required wigs as a "ridiculous costume" that represents a "culturally insensitive climate" at the Bar. He suggested that the judiciary should also do away with other "archaic" court dress, such as wing collars, bands, and collarettes, in favor of a dress code that requires barristers to wear a black gown with smart business wear underneath, bringing the profession into the 21st century.

Rachel Bale, a mixed-race barrister with curly afro hair, highlighted the existing religious exemptions for Sikhs who wear turbans and Muslims who wear headscarves, arguing that barristers should be able to opt out for cultural reasons.

She noted that wigs are often "not fit for purpose" for naturally black hairstyles, emphasizing the importance of hair in black culture and its connection to identity.

As senior judges actively discuss the findings of the Bar Council's working group, the legal profession in England and Wales may soon see a significant change in court dress requirements, aimed at promoting diversity and inclusion.

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