This article deals primarily with dress worn in the courts of law of England and Wales and elsewhere in the English-speaking world.
Court dress is worn at hearings in open court in all courts of the Supreme Court of Judicature and in county courts. However, court dress may be dispensed with at the option of the judge, e.g. in very hot weather, and invariably where it may intimidate children, e.g. in the Family Division and at the trials of minors. In the House of Lords and in the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council counsel wear court dress, but their Lordships are dressed in suits.
Court dress is not worn at hearings in chambers and in the magistrates' courts.
All male advocates wear a white stiff wing collar with bands (two strips of linen about 5" by 1" hanging down the front of the neck). They also wear either a dark suit (usually with waistcoat if single-breasted) or a black coat and waistcoat and grey pinstriped trousers. The black coat and waistcoat can be combined into a single garment, which is simply a waistcoat with sleeves, known as a bar jacket or court waistcoat. Female advocates also wear a dark suit, but often wear bands attached to a collarette rather than a wing collar.
Junior barristers wear an open-fronted black gown with open sleeves, gathered and decorated with buttons and ribbons, and a gathered yoke, over a black or dark suit, hence the term stuffgownsman for juniors. In addition barristers wear a short horsehair wig with curls at the side and ties down the back.
Solicitors wear an open-fronted black gown similar to that worn by a QC save that the material used is the same as a junior barrister's gown over a black or dark suit and may wear a short horsehair wig with curls at the side and ties down the back.
Barristers or solicitors who have been appointed Queen's Counsel, or QCs, wear a silk gown with a flap collar and long closed sleeves (the arm opening is half-way up the sleeve). The QC's black coat, known as a court coat, is cut like 18th-century court dress, and the sleeve of the QC's court coat or bar jacket has a turnback cuff with three buttons across.
On ceremonial occasions, and when appearing at the bar of the House of Lords (nowadays this usually only happens when the decision of the House is given), QCs wear ceremonial dress (see below).
Until 2008, judges in the Family and Chancery divisions of the courts wear the same black silk gown and court coat or bar jacket as QCs, as do judges in the Court of Appeal. All judges wear a short bench wig when working in criminal court, reserving the long wig for ceremonial occasions, and a wing collar and bands.
From autumn 2008, judges in all civil and family cases will wear a newly designed robe with no wig, collar or bands, over an ordinary business suit and tie.
Judges in the highest courts, the House of Lords and the Privy Council, have never worn court dress at all (although advocates appearing before them do), as they are sitting respectively as legislators and Privy Counsellors. Instead they are dressed in ordinary suits and ties.
It is in intermediate courts that try cases at first instance (with a jury in criminal cases) that court dress is the most complicated.
When dealing with first-instance criminal business in the winter, a High Court judge of the Queen's Bench Division wears a scarlet robe with fur facings, a black scarf and girdle (waistband) and a scarlet casting-hood or tippet. When dealing with criminal business in the summer, the judge wears a similar scarlet robe, but with silk rather than fur facings.
When he tries civil cases, until 2008 he wears in winter a black robe faced with fur, a black scarf and girdle and a scarlet tippet; in summer, a violet robe faced with silk, with the black scarf and girdle and scarlet tippet. However, from autumn 2008 he will, in civil and family cases, wear only a robe of modern design over his ordinary suit and tie, with no wig, collar or bands.
A circuit judge (in the County courts or the Crown court) wears a violet robe with lilac facings. As well as a girdle, the judge wears a tippet (sash) over the left shoulder - lilac when dealing with civil business and red when dealing with crime. However, from autumn 2008 he will retain this dress only in criminal cases (the Crown Court) and will wear only a robe with no wig in other cases.
On special ceremonial occasions (such as the opening of the legal year) judges and QCs wear long wigs (hence the colloquial phrase "big wig"), black breeches and silk stockings, and wear lace jabots instead of bands. High court judges in addition have a scarlet and fur mantle, which is worn with his gold chain of office in the case of the Lord Chief Justice. The Lord Chancellor and judges of the Court of Appeal have black silk damask gowns heavily embellished with gold embroidery.
In July 2007 the Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales announced the changes that will be made to court working dress in the English and Welsh courts. The reforms were due to take effect on the 1st January 2008. However, following reports of strong opposition to the proposed changes, they were put on hold They are now expected to take effect in autumn 2008.
Judges in the civil and family courts will no longer wear traditional dress; however, Circuit Judges will continue to wear their current gown in the county court. The array of robes worn by High Court Judges will be abolished and replaced by a modernised and significantly simplified robe. The wearing of wigs in the civil and family courts will be completely abolished. High Court judges presiding over criminal trials in the Crown Court will appear in the robes they currently wear in the winter. No further changes shall be made to the working dress of judges in the criminal courts, save possibly for the Divisional Court.
These changes will be reflected in the dress allowances made to judges. Furthermore, newly appointed Circuit Judges will no longer receive an allowance to buy full-bottomed wigs. Whilst the one-off cost of supplying the new civil gown is estimated at about £200,000, annual savings in the region of £300,000 are exptected.
The Chairman of the Bar announced in April 2008 that, as a result of a survey of the profession, the Bar would recommend that advocates should retain their existing formal robes (including wigs) in all cases, civil and criminal, with possible exceptions in the County Court. In a letter to the profession, he said (in part):
Scottish court dress is very similar to English court dress, but there are notable differences. For example, Scottish advocates wear tail coats under their gowns, and wear white bow ties instead of bands. QCs and judges wear long scarf-like ties (known as falls) instead of bands.
Scottish judicial robes are also very different from English ones.
The Irish Free State, established in 1922, continued largely with the courts and court system inherited from the United Kingdom, albeit pared down and shorn of some of its imperial grandeur. To fit with the reorganization of the courts and the asceticism of a new and impoverished state, the judiciary all but abandoned the wearing of their former ceremonial costumes. Prior to Independence, the Lord Chancellor, Master of the Rolls and the Lords Justice of Appeal in Ireland would have worn full ceremonial dress identical to their English equivalents, viz. long black damask robes with wide bands of gold lace and ornaments. The Lord Chief Justice, Lord Chief Baron (up to the extinction of the office on the retirement of Christopher Palles in 1916) and other puisne judges of the High Court would likewise have worn scarlet robes with ermine hood and ermine-trimmed mantle. Many fine examples of these robes can be seen in portraits of Irish judges in the King's Inns.
Upon the passing of the Constitution of the Irish Free State (Saorstát Éireann) Act 1922, the office of Lord Chancellor immediately became defunct. Then in 1924 the Court of Appeal was refashioned into the Supreme Court; the Lord Chief Justice became simply Chief Justice and head of the judiciary; and the Master of the Rolls was replaced with a President of the High Court. The judges of the new superior courts, including the Chief Justice and President, adopted for all occasions - ceremonial or otherwise - the ordinary working judicial dress of the austere type previously worn by members of the old Court of Appeal, that is, in the words of the current Order 119 rule 2 of the Rules of the Superior Courts, 1986:-
"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."
This remains the dress of the judiciary to this day. Judges of the Circuit Court also wear similar costume, pursuant to Order 3 rule 1 of the Circuit Court Rules, 2001. The prescribed dress of judges of the District Court (in Order 5 rule 1 of the District Court Rules, 1997) is the same, but does not include a wig.
Barristers' dress in Ireland is almost unchanged since the pre-Independence era. Counsel may not exercise his right of audience unless he is properly attired. It is provided in Order 119 rule 3 of the Rules of the Superior Courts as follows:-
"Senior and Junior Counsel shall appear, when in court, habited in a dark colour and in such robes and bands and with such wigs as have heretofore been worn by Senior and Junior Counsel respectively, and no Counsel shall be heard in any case during the sittings unless so habited."
While the forthcoming reforms to court dress will have profoundly altered matters in England by 2008, for the present it may be said that Irish barristers robe similarly to their English counterparts. Such robes are worn by barristers in all courts, including the District Court. Like Queen's Counsel in England, Senior Counsel generally wear a short bar wig and black silk or poplin gown with flap collar and long, closed sleeves over a buttoned and broad-cuffed court coat. Their shirts will have a detachable stiff wing collar, worn with bands. Junior Counsel wear a short bar wig and black poplin or stuff bar gown (which has a gathered yoke and short, open sleeves) over a dark three-piece suit with similar wing collar and bands. While it is not unknown for female barristers to wear a blouse with separate bands much like male colleagues, more commonly they would wear a starched white all-in-one collarette or bib covering their neckline that approximates in looks to a tall Mandarin collar and bands.
Section 49 of the Courts and Court Officers Act 1995, however, did abolish the requirement that barristers should wear wigs in court. To this extent only, the wording of the Rules of Court above is somewhat out of date. (All counsel still must wear a gown and bands etc.) By affording individual barristers a discretion to wear the forensic wig in court, the new rule defused what had become an increasingly bitter debate in the profession whether it was appropriate to cleave to anachronistic modes of dress - even as a traditional and undoubtedly recognizable uniform - and avoided a more drastic solution, such as the abandonment of wigs or gowns altogether. Accordingly, there is little contemporary call for reform of court dress in Ireland.
Junior counsel are called to the Bar in two sittings in the year, one in Trinty and the other in Michaelmas term. This ceremony takes place in the Supreme Court. By unshaking convention, all new barristers are expected to habit themselves in full court working dress, including wig, for their call. This is so regardless of whether they intend ever to wear a wig in their future practice at the Bar.
Senior Counsel are appointed annually in the Call to the Inner Bar, a short ceremony in the Supreme Court towards the end of Michaelmas term. (Junior counsel are members of the Outer or Utter Bar.) On this occasion alone do the new Senior Counsel wear full-bottomed wigs, though with their working robes rather than with the breeches, stockings, patent court shoes and lace stock of former times. This is purely a matter of convention and is not, so it would seem, governed by any rule of court. Since 1922, the Chief Justice has presided over the ceremony in lieu of the departed Lord Chancellor. None has seen fit to alter the manner of the Call.
Judges and counsel are forbidden to wear wigs and gowns in proceedings in the District, Circuit and High Courts in respect of inter alia the following Acts:
The Legitimacy Declaration Act (Ireland) 1868;
The Children Acts 1908 to 2001;
The Adoption Acts 1952 to 1998;
The Married Women's Status Act 1957;
The Guardianship of Infants Act 1964;
The Family Home Protection Act 1976;
The Family Law (Maintenance of Spouses and Children) Act 1976;
The Family Law (Protection of Spouses and Children) Act 1981;
The Family Law Act 1981;
The Status of Children Act 1987;
The Judicial Separation and Family Law Reform Act 1989;
The Child Care Act 1991;
The Child Abduction and Enforcement of Custody Orders Act 1991;
The Family Law Act 1995;
The Family Law (Divorce) Act 1996; and
The Domestic Violence Act 1996.
It is arguable that the Oireachtas intended the ban on "wigs and gowns" should be read liberally, to mean that judges and barristers should appear in ordinary suits in these cases. In practice, a literal interpretation of the rule has been preferred. Judges and counsel do not wear either wig or gown in the family courts but will dutifully don the court coat (if applicable) and a wing collar and bands nonetheless.
Full court working dress remains worn in the Supreme Court in any proceedings, including those under the foregoing statutes.
The Rules of Court oblige judges and barristers to wear court dress only "during the sittings" that is, during the four law terms of Michaelmas, Hilary, Easter and Trinity. In any hearing during the vacations, judges and counsel wear ordinary suits.
By virtue of Section 17 of the Courts Act 1971, all solicitors have full rights of audience in the superior courts of Ireland. When appearing as advocates, they wear ordinary suits and, unlike in England, are not required to wear gowns.
Court dress in many jurisdictions in Commonwealth realms such as Australia and the Caribbean is identical to English court dress. Many African countries that used to be British colonies similarly continue to wear the dress, white wigs and all.
In Pakistan, the courts have continued to uphold the raj tradition of lawyers wearing white and black. However, in 1980s, judges modified their dress to do away with wig and to allow the usage of a black sherwani (a long traditional Pakistani coat).
In Canada court dress is identical to that in England, except that wigs are not worn. Bar jackets are worn under the gown, though QCs and Judges have more elaborate cuffs than other lawyers. In some lower level courts of Queen's Bench it has been acceptable for lawyers to be dressed in proper business attire. Business attire is suitable for the lower provincial and territorial courts. There is no distinction between solicitors and barristers; all lawyers are formally qualified as both. Judges of the Supreme Court of Canada wear red robes with white fur trim on ceremonial occasions, however they were black gowns when hearing cases. Judges of all other courts (federal and provincial) wear black gowns sometimes adorned with sashes and crests which vary and depend on the level of court and the province in which the case is heard. All Canadian judges also wear black court waistcoats with white collar and tabs.
In New Zealand court dress was simplified in 1996. Judges wear black gowns in the District Court, High Court and Court of Appeal, while counsel only wear black gowns in the latter two courts. Wigs and bar jackets (for counsel) are only worn on ceremonial occasions. No gowns are worn by the Judges of the Supreme Court of New Zealand, on a false analogy with the Law Lords of the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council.
In Australia court dress varies according to the jurisdiction.
In the High Court of Australia, justices wear plain black robes with zippered fronts over normal attire. They do not wear wigs, collars, bands or jabots. The robes are similar in appearance to those worn by Justices of the Supreme Court of the United States, although they are more elaborately tailored. These robes have been worn since 1988, when the High Court abandoned the previous court dress of black silk robes, bar jackets, jabots or bands and full-bottomed wigs and lace cuffs on formal occasions and bench wigs for ordinary business In the Federal Court of Australia, judges no longer wear traditional court dress, but wear black wool robes with a black trim for ‘first instance’ work, and black wool robes with a red trim for appeal cases. These robes were adopted in 1997 and were designed by Bill Haycock. The robes have seven horizontal tucks or "ombres" on one side, representing the six Australian States and the Territories. They also serve to symbolise Australia’s federal constitution and the federal jurisdiction of the Court. The robes also include a vertical band of black silk made up or of seven equal parts, also symbolizing Australia’s federal system and equality before the law.
Judges and judicial registrars of the Family Court of Australia wear a black silk gown, a bar jacket with either bands or a jabot and a bench wig. On formal occasions, judges wear full-bottomed wigs.
Federal Magistrates wear a plain black gown in court without a wig.
Judges of the Supreme Courts of the States and Territories of Australia wear court dress similar to that worn by judges of the High Court in England and Wales. On formal occasions, judges wear red scarlet robe with white fur facings, bands or a jabot, a black scarf and girdle and a scarlet casting-hood, with a full-bottomed wig. Unlike judges in the United Kingdom, judges in Australia never wear breeches, hose and buckled shoes. When sitting in criminal proceedings, judges wear scarlet robes with grey silk facings, bands or a jabot and a bench wig. When sitting in appeal or in civil proceedings, judges and masters wear a black silk gown, a bar jacket with either bands or a jabot and a bench wig. In some jurisdictions, the wearing of wigs has been abandoned for other than formal occasions.
Judges of the Land and Environment Court of New South Wales and judges sitting in the Workers’ Compensation Court of NSW and the Dust Diseases Tribunal wear the same court dress as a judge of the Supreme Court sitting civilly.
Judges of the District or County Courts of the States of Australia wear court dress similar to that worn by judges of the County Court of England and Wales.
Judges in all Australian courts will not usually wear court dress for procedural or chambers proceedings.
Stipendiary Magistrates and justices of the peace do not robe, other than in NSW where they have worn a black robe over normal business attire since 2005.
Barristers in all Australian jurisdictions, when required to do so, wear court dress similar to that worn in the United Kingdom. Queen’s Counsel or Senior Counsel wear a black silk gown, a bar jacket, bands or a jabot and a horsehair wig with curls at the side and ties down the back. On formal occasions, they wear full-bottomed wigs. In addition Victorian Senior Counsel wear a black rosette hanging from the back of their gown. Junior Counsel wear an open-fronted black stuff gown with open sleeves and a gathered yoke, and otherwise wear the same outfit as Senior Counsel (other than full-bottomed wigs). Counsel usually wear dark trousers or striped trousers, or a dark skirt for female barristers. Barristers will not usually robe for procedural hearings.
Solicitors, in those jurisdictions where the legal profession is not fused (such as New South Wales and Queensland) do not robe when appearing in court, even before superior courts. In those States and Territories with fused professions, solicitors robe in situations where barristers would normally wear robes.
In the High Court of Australia, barristers wear the same dress as is required by the Supreme Court in their jurisdiction.
For a matter heard in the Federal Court of Australia, barristers robe (but without a wig) if it is the usual practice to robe in the Supreme Court of the State or Territory in which the matter is being heard.
Counsel do not robe before the Federal Magistrates Court.
Court dress in Hong Kong is practically the same as court dress in England and Wales. Under the auspices of the one country, two systems arrangement after 1997, when sovereignty of the former British crown colony was transferred to the People's Republic of China as a special administrative region, the territory has continued to be a common law jurisdiction, and English legal traditions have been preserved. Judges in the Court of Final Appeal, however, do not wear wigs but only gowns with lace jabot, similar to those of International Court of Justice.
Formal court dress is a relative rarity in the USA. Generally, judges of both state and federal courts are free to select their own courtroom attire. The most common choice is a plain black robe which covers the torso and legs, with sleeves. Female judges will sometimes add to the robe a plain white collar similar to that used in academic dress. Very occasionally, a judge will wear another color, such as blue or red.
Until the tenure of Chief Justice of the United States John Marshall, all Supreme Court justices wore red robes with ermine trim and full-bottomed wigs, reminiscent of British court dress. Marshall, however, eschewed this formality and began the practice of only wearing a black silk robe, with no wig. In 1994, Chief Justice William Rehnquist added four gold bars to each sleeve of his black robe, but the change in his attire (he had been Chief Justice since 1986) was his own innovation and was inspired by a production of the operetta Iolanthe, rather than any historical precedent. His successor, John Roberts, has returned to the practice of wearing a plain black robe.
Some Supreme Court justices (including Clarence Thomas and Stephen Breyer) maintain the ancient legal practice of wearing large black skullcaps, in their case when wearing their robes outdoors in cold weather (for example, at a presidential inauguration.)
Many state supreme court justices wear unique styles of robes, the most notable being the Maryland Court of Appeals, where all judges wear red, and British-style tab collars.
Some judges eschew special dress entirely and preside over their courts in normal business wear.
"Professional" attire (e.g. sharply fitted cleaned and pressed business suits, or the traditional trousers, jacket, tie, and shined leather shoes for men or medium-length skirt, conservative blouse, and fashionable high-heeled shoes for women) is the norm for attorneys appearing in court, although with the gradual increase in the number of women admitted to the bar in the past half-century the term has been of necessity subject to some re-definition. For example, some judges forbade female attorneys to wear trousers when appearing in court; but this practice is falling into disuse.
The most significant exception to the practice of non-ceremonial court dress is the United States Solicitor General. When the Solicitor General (or an assistant) argues a case before the Supreme Court of the United States, he or she wears morning dress, with striped trousers, grey ascot, waistcoat, and a cutaway morning coat, making for a very distinctive sight in the courtroom.
Recent changes to Chinese courts have led to more formal dress code. Business suits or black gowns (with red stripe on the front) are replacing the military look of the Chinese court system.