Sunday, January 08, 2006

Of Wigs and Robes

A comment this morning from The Happy Feminist set me to work trying to answer a question often heard of Canadian courts: Why do lawyers and judges wear wigs?

Good question! However, the last time I was in a Canadian courtroom was years ago as a witness and I honestly can't recall wigs being a part of the regalia. So... I did a little digging.

First off, the history, as one can imagine goes back to the 17th century. Wigs were a fashion amongst the aristocracy, the class which provided all magistrates, judges, masters and justices. Apparently, it is a form of dress which just hung on. (Caution: PDF file). That's not surprising when you look at the ceremonial uniforms of the British military. The British love tradition and the courts embraced that trait. (Although some of the more useful British traditions such as "drawing and quartering" and placing the heads of traitors on London Bridge seem to have been allowed to slip away.) The British exported the Common Law around the world. Court practice and dress went along with the package and in British North America courts were British in all respects, (except that one might get the odd splinter from the bench.) The US, after independence, seems to have adopted "academic" dress as court dress, although given the century and the fashions of the day, it would seem logical that late 18th century US courts probably saw wigs riding atop judges and lawyers for some period of time. (If anyone has information on this, please hop in with the answer.)

Well, in Canada, lawyers and judges actually do not wear wigs. They all wear robes, but wigs were done away with rather soon after dispensing with British dominance. It is reasoned, although not proven, that Newfoundland, having joined Confederation in 1949, was the last Canadian jurisdiction to see judges and lawyers in wigs. It would seem that, aside from looking a little on the silly side, they were just plain hard to get. Beaver pelts however, were readily available and it is something of a surprise that Canadian judges do not wear a live beaver on their head, particularly while sentencing an offender. (Waddling beavers; not galloping beavers.)

The wearing of robes in Canada depends on the level of court. All judges appear to wear some form of robe but have identifying linings or sashes, (despite the belief that a lower court judge can get away with a flannel plaid shirt, galoshes and a toque). A Justice of the Peace wears a green sash where an appeal or superior court judge wears a red sash. Lawyers only wear robes and white collar tabs when they are appearing before a superior or appeals court. Supreme Court Justices wear red robes with a nice fluffy ermin collar. (They look like Santa Claus. Maybe that's why they're hard to locate around Christmas.)

I thought that it was proper to call a Canadian judge, "M' Lord". Apparently, that is only proper in British courts. Canada has no feudal history nor an aristocracy and rather than import that form of address, Canadian courts took on the forms of address relative to the appointment and acknowledgement of having "risen to the bench". A Justice of the Peace is addressed as "Your Worship" and all higher judges are addressed as "Your Honour". In THF's story of the Canadian lawyer addressing the judge in a US court, he was probably using, "Your Worship", although given the desire to win and believing the judge may not be aware of Canadian forms of address, he may have invented something, like "Your Benevolent Immenseness, Lord Of All Ye Survey". (That is what I would do, although I would also grovel, snivel and offer to clean up after the judge's basset hound.)

One final thing: This is also a lawyer's wig, although I can find no reference to any country where lawyers wear mushrooms on their heads.


Nathaniel Christopher said...

"I thought that it was proper to call a Canadian judge, "M' Lord". Apparently, that is only proper in British courts."


Justices of the Supreme Court of British Columbia and the British Columbia Court of Appeal are addressed as My Lord/Your Lordship and My Lady/Your Ladyship.


Unknown said...

You can just call them Judge or Your Honor, that British stuff is really 18th century in Canada now..... WRONG! You are well. ....wrong!

Ryan McKenna said...

All Justices of the Court of Queen's Bench in Alberta and the Court of Appeals in Alberta are supposed to be styled My Lord/Lady. I believe SCC is too but I'd have to double check that.