Why Don’t British Supreme Court Justices Wear Robes?

A reader recently asked:

Why didn’t the Supreme Court justices wear robes and wigs during the Brexit case? Is that normal? 

The answer is yes, it’s normal. Supreme Court justices have worn ordinary business attire during oral arguments since the court’s inception in 2009. This tradition was inherited from the Appellate Committee of the House of Lords, which was the United Kingdom’s highest court before the Supreme Court. Because it was a committee of the House of Lords, its members dressed like legislators rather than judges.

The latitude in dress also extends to the lawyers who argue before the Supreme Court. Although formal court dress remains the default, lawyers can ask for permission to dispense with their wigs and gowns. If the opposing side agrees, the court will invariably allow them to dress down.

news-release-121001

Photo courtesy of the UK Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court is not entirely robe-less, however. On ceremonial occasions such as the State Opening of Parliament, they wear elaborate black-and-gold robes modeled after those worn by the Lord Justices of Appeal, though the Supreme Court’s robes have the court’s emblem on the back.

Incidentally, Britain’s Supreme Court justices are not alone in eschewing robes. Their counterparts in New Zealand also wear business attire, and they do so for similar reasons. Until 2004, the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in London was New Zealand’s final court of appeal, and members of the Judicial Committee wear normal clothes because they are technically acting as Privy Counsellors rather than judges. But on ceremonial occasions, the kiwi justices wear full-bottomed wigs and scarlet robes like those worn by High Court justices in England.

 

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