Theft and sex: a note on wigs

“There is something perverse about the fact that one of the poorest paid sections of the legal profession has the most expensive uniform”

So for most of our readers, the lawyer’s wig is an everyday, familiar item.  Possibly one of those irritating things you might have left at home when you’re running ten minutes late for a court appearance.  For the general public however, the perruque is a bit of a mystery.  Why on earth do lawyers wear wigs? (answer: they’ve been wearing them since the 17th century purely due to fashion: the reign of Charles II made wigs essential wear for polite society). What are they made of? (horsehair).  How much do they cost?

William_Ballantine_Vanity_Fair_5_March_1870_(crop).jpg Credit: Wikimedia Commons licence

William Ballantine Vanity Fair, Credit: Wikimedia Commons licence

Ah. Well, this is interesting. According to a trainee barrister source of mine, there are only about three major suppliers of wigs: Ede and Ravenscourt, Chancery Wigs and Stanley Ley.

For a barrister’s wig (the wigs for judges are about triple the cost), check out the following prices:

Ede and Ravenscourt: £560

Stanley Ley: £425

Chancery Wigs: £329

That’s an average of £438. Added to that, our trainee reminds us, is the cost of a gown (about £150), endless shirts (about £30 each), as well as all the different types of collars (roughly £15 each).

If we take that figure and put it in the context of student debt (let’s say 20k) and then consider how much a legal aid trainee is expected to make after tax and expenses (approx. 12,000 a year) – well, that is quite a sum.

“When you’ve been called to the Bar, you’ve basically got to have an extra grand to get the uniform. It’s insane, especially for legal aid lawyers.”

He says that there is actually a lot of politics when it comes to choosing your wig:

“Ede and Ravenscourt wigs look the best, but they’re really expensive. Chancery Wigs are the cheapest but they’re actually made in Australia. This is a problem because there are lots of people in the legal profession who will look down on your wig if you’ve got it ordered and shipped over from abroad. It’s a total snobbery thing.”

Chambers won’t have a stock of wigs in the back, says our trainee.

“It’s designed to be yours: it moulds to your head shape over the years, it’s yours to have and there is something special in that. But it is insanely expensive, it doesn’t really make sense.

“There is also prejudice in that some people should wear 3 piece suits, which just adds to the cost.

“I’ve only worn my wig once in the crown court. You don’t really need them in your early days but you have to buy them. In magistrates court I just wear suits.

“There is something perverse about the fact that one of the poorest paid sections of the legal profession has the most expensive uniform.

“There are lots of people who think it’s terribly important to have wigs. It’s about having a uniform for the court: court is a form of theatre, you don’t want it to be personal. You’re a person playing a role in a theatre rather than doing something to a defendant personally. There’s also the suggestion that it makes you less identifiable outside the court – you’re much more likely to have a client smack you in the face in the magistrates court [without your wig] than you are in the crown court.”

For him, the problem of affording wigs has its similarities with the issues of legal aid.

“It all goes along with this idea at the Bar that everyone is a gentleman and gentlemen don’t worry about money because gentlemen have other incomes and so no real gentleman would be particularly concerned about spending a thousand pounds on a wig before their first month’s wage. I think that’s the problem with all of it. The way that barristers bill their clients, with legal aid stuff it can take up to three or four months to get paid, that’s quite regular, and again it’s the same thing, people don’t kick up a fuss because “gentlemen” don’t have to worry about money. People are starting to complain more about not getting paid properly, but essentially this all stems from that kind of culture.

“I’ve not yet been paid for anything I’ve done and I did my first bit of paid work at the beginning of April.”

But isn’t the cost of buying the uniform justified by the fact that it’s one of those once in a lifetime (or career) investments? I ask.

Yes and no, says our trainee.

“Many trainee lawyers won’t go into crown court that often so you feel like you are spending a huge amount of money on something quite disproportionate. But then again, it’s seen as a really important part of the justice system – I think it’s silly but for many people it’s really a mark of the system and seen as special.  We don’t christen them though, like everyone thinks.”

What do you mean, “christen them”? I ask.

“Well, sexually. People say that lawyers christen their wigs when they buy them for the first time. But I don’t think it’s true.”

Going back to the notion of investment and how much he’s had to cough up for the wig, I ask him if he puts it on a stand in his bedroom at night to make sure nothing will happen to it.

“No, I keep mine in a tupperware box.  But a lot of people will keep theirs in an expensive tin with their initials on.”

The biggest problem with the wigs – as well as the expensive legal books that you need – is theft in the courts, he tells me.

THEFT in the courts? You must be kidding, I say.  Theft among lawyers?

“Yes, it’s a huge problem.  You spend all this money on the wig and the books and when it gets stolen, obviously you have to buy it all again.  My book costs about 200 quid. The crown court one is 400-500 quid. You have to replace it each year for the new edition.

“It’s not that people are too poor to buy their own, but rather that people are broke and would rather nick it than spend the money.”


Interesting food for thought – what do you think?


WATCH: Association of Police and Court Interpreters on why they support Save UK Justice

“It is now accepted that you will not get a fair trial in this country”

Geoffrey Buckingham, Chairman of the APCI, talks about legal aid cuts, changes to the interpreting service and about the future of the UK justice system.



What about the victims?

The past few months have been busy here at Legal Aid Watch – we’ve live-blogged the lawyers’ protests, analysed data in order to give you exclusive reports, and spoken to a range of charities concerned about access to justice.  But there’s still one side to this debate that needs to be heard.

How might victims of crime feel about cuts to legal aid?  What about the families whose relatives have been murdered – do they think the cuts to legal aid are fair?

You might remember Baronness Doreen Lawrence – the mother of murdered teenager, Stephen Lawrence – being at the lawyers’ walk-out.  The family’s lawyer Imran Khan said in a Guardian article that he would have been reluctant to take on the family’s case if today’s legal aid cuts applied.

But for Jean Taylor, founder of Families Fighting for Justice, it’s a different story.

Jean Taylor, Founder of Families Fighting for Justice (credit: FFFJ website)

Jean Taylor, Founder of Families Fighting for Justice (credit: FFFJ website)

We started off by asking her what it’s like to suddenly find yourself in the courts, trying to understand lawyers and the legal system while the suspect sits in the dock.

“It’s like being hit by a bulldozer,” she says.

Listen to our audio interview with FFFJ here:

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Lawyers have been creaming extortionate amounts of money from appeal cases for far too long – Jean Taylor, Founder, Families Fighting for Justice

Jean lost a sister in 1998, a son in 2000 and a daughter in 2004 all to the acts of homicide.

In an audio interview with Legal Aid Watch, Jean says that the legal aid system “has been abused for far too long”.   Speaking out against prisoners who plead guilty, but then go on to appeal the length of their sentence using legal aid, she said that she had “no sympathy” for lawyers and their claims that legal aid cuts would hit their salaries.

Lawyers, she says, have been “creaming extortionate amounts of money” from appeal cases for far too long.

Victims and their families are secondary within the system, Jean says.  If a victim’s family needs access to the court transcripts, they must come up with over £1000 themselves.  A prisoner meanwhile, has all the information he needs thanks to legal aid.  “It’s wrong,” she says.

Moreover, savings made by cuts to legal aid for the perpetrators could be put back into helping the victims of crimes, she said.

Interview: the reality of legal aid and domestic violence

Mandip Ghai and Ruth Tweedale at women’s advocacy charity Rights of Women talk about what legal aid cuts have meant for victims of domestic violence. You can find a full list of permissible evidence here or visit their website for their recent report on the subject.



Legal Aid Watch interviews: Mary-Rachel McCabe, legal reporter and trainee barrister

Tom Belger asks Mary-Rachel McCabe about legal aid cuts for welfare, immigration and prison cases  – and if other providers could plug the gap.

Mary-Rachel McCabe, legal writer at The Justice Gap

“It’s not even a matter of signposting – the clients ask where to go, and all you can say is ‘nowhere'” Photo: Justice Gap

Mary-Rachel McCabe writes for The Justice Gap. She has reported extensively on legal aid reforms as well as broader issues of social and criminal justice.

She is also a caseworker at Danielle Cohen Solicitors, a London-based immigration law firm, and is training part-time at the City University Law School to become a barrister.


TOM: Some people see lawyers as “fat cats”, and think it’s only fair to cut their pay as everyone else feels the effects of austerity. What would you say to that?

MARY-RACHEL:People put lawyers under one umbrella – you’re a lawyer, you must be rich. My own family thinks that! But you’ll never earn a lot if you want to be a legal aid barrister – especially doing criminal cases.
For about the last 20 years, the fees haven’t increased, and at the very junior end, you’d be lucky to take home £12,000 a year.  Only about 10 per cent of us get scholarships for training,  so most start out with an obscene amount of debt too.

Image: Money. Quote: "You'll never earn a lot as a legal aid criminal barrister" Photo: CJ Isherwood

“You’ll never earn a lot as a legal aid criminal barrister”  Photo: CJ Isherwood


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Watch the action from the Grayling Day protest!


Highlights from the protest on March 7, 2014, featuring interviews with Camilla Graham Wood and Russell Fraser from Justice Alliance.

Camilla warned of the implications of legal aid cuts and government accountability: “In a democratic society, we should be able to hold these organisations to account and legal aid is a key way that people have been able to do that”.

Russell spoke of the potential miscarriages of justice that could arise: “We should as a society want to be confident when someone is sent to prison that they’re actually guilty”.

Justice system faces “crisis of legitimacy” with legal aid cuts. L.A.W. talks to Mark Symes



Mark Symes. Credit: Garden Court

Mark Symes is a barrister at Garden Court Chambers specialising in immigration and human rights law. 

Can you tell me about whether your sector has been affected by the legal aid cuts? 

Our sector has been affected quite dramatically by the legal aid cuts. For example, as of spring 2013, large numbers of people have come out of eligibility for legal aid. That means that almost everyone who doesn’t have an asylum claim may not be eligible for public funding for their appeals in front of the tribunal or for initial advice work. That can include some trafficking victims, it can include children, and it can include almost anyone even if they have a strong relationship with a British citizen and lived here for many years.  So, a very broad class of person is affected with no access to legal aid at all in immigration.


We are seeing people at tribunal hearings unrepresented, litigants in person, and that tends to take much longer than cases where people are represented. Additionally, you are seeing that the government is always ensuring it is represented so you have an inequality of arms with a migrant who doesn’t have expertise in the law. And this is in a legal area where even the Court of Appeal have recently indicated that the law is so complex and fast moving that it befuddles even the country’s most experienced lawyers. So there are real practical issues caused by the legal aid cuts.

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