Laura Brennen | Trainee Solicitor

The ‘dressing down’ of the Legal Profession

When you think about Lawyers and Judges appearing in Court, it conjures up images of Harry Potter-like black gowns and extremely curly white wigs. This ‘uniform’ could soon be a thing of the past, with a style revolution afoot within the Legal Profession. Courts in Scotland have begun to embrace change, issuing new guidance stating that wigs and gowns are no longer required when appearing in certain Courts in Scotland.

The ‘dressing down’ of the legal profession started back in 2014, with Court of Session Practice Note No.1 of 2014, which took effect on 22 April 2014. The Lord President declared that Senators of the College of Justice sitting in the Inner House of the Court of Session would:

No longer wear wigs and judicial robes. Where this is the case the court will not insist that counsel should appear with wig and gown or that solicitors with rights of audience should appear with gowns.’

This decision sparked great controversy within the Profession. The Faculty of Advocates did not embrace the change, with the Dean of the Faculty at the time directing members to continue wearing wigs and gowns when appearing in the Inner House. It was argued that the removal of wigs and gowns was a disregard of legal traditions that had been in place for hundreds of years. Many viewed it as an attack on the strong sense of identity that court dress provided to the Profession.

There were no other significant changes involving Court dress until October 2019, when the Lord President signed Court of Session Practice Note Number 1 of 2019. Lord Carloway, QC ruled that judges in the Outer House could appear without their traditional vestments in civil cases when no evidence was being heard. Lawyers and Counsel would also not be required to wear their gowns in those circumstances.

Following the release of the Practice Note, there were numerous surveys undertaken to gauge the views of the Profession on the removal of formal court dress.

Scottish Legal News asked its readers, ‘Following the decision to dispense with wigs and robes/gowns in certain Outer House cases, SLN asks: Is there such a place for clothing in Scottish courts in the 21st Century?’

The SLN survey received 584 responses, with 77.2% of respondents in favour of keeping wigs and gowns when appearing in Scottish Courts.

The Scottish Young Lawyers Association also carried out a survey of their members; the SYLA poll received 372 responses mainly from qualified solicitors, trainee solicitors and students. In their survey, 68.28% of respondents disagreed with Practice Note No 1 of 2019.

SYLA also asked respondents ‘Do you think that the current court dress requirements (i.e. gown) should be removed for all solicitors in all courts?’

Only 22.97% of respondents were in favour of abolishing court dress for solicitors.

Following the changes in the Court of Session, the changes are now being implemented at other Courts in Scotland. In February 2020, Sheriff Principal Turnbull at Glasgow Sheriff Court issued a Practice Note stating that from 2 March 2020 solicitors will not be required to wear Court Dress in civil proceedings apart from when appearing at Evidential Hearings.

Sheriff Principal Turnbull stated: “It is not expected that counsel or solicitors appearing will wear wigs or gowns, except when appearing in a civil hearing which involves the testimony of witnesses.”

Some would argue that court dress allows lay court users to identify staff quickly in often extremely busy environments. The argument also follows that if lay participants of the Court are able to identify solicitors and advocates easily, they are easier able to understand and differentiate between the many characters within the courtroom.

On the opposite side of the coin, it could be argued that this ‘dressing down’ is a move towards a more modern Legal Profession that is fit for the 21st Century. Leaving behind archaic traditions and embracing change.

It is not just in Court that the style rules for Lawyers are changing; many Law Firms in Scotland have introduced ‘dress for your day’ policies. These policies give employees the flexibility to wear what they like to work. In certain situations, business dress is still required such as when meeting with clients or attending Court.  These policies are a move away from the need for a uniform at work, allowing employees more freedom of expression and control over how they choose to present themselves whilst at work.

As a Trainee Solicitor and someone who has been a member of the Legal profession for just shy of six months; I believe the changing ‘working wardrobe’ of the profession is a positive development.

Lawyers are finally in tune with our professional counterparts, such as Accountants, who have taken a more casual approach to business dress for years. Although I am slightly worried that if I show up without a gown on at my first court appearance, a Sheriff might confuse me for a witness!

Laura Brennen

Laura Brennen

Laura is a trainee solicitor with Jackson Boyd. She commenced her traineeship with the firm in 2019.

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