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?

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A day in the life of: a criminal solicitor

Matthew Swash is a criminal solicitor with OBW Perera. This article forms part of our series “A Day in the Life Of”.  If you would like to share your experiences, please get in touch via email legalaidwatch1@gmail.com or via Twitter @legal_aid_watch

 

Matthew Swash

Matthew Swash, criminal solicitor

“It is 6.00 am and my two year old is shouting to open his gate so he can get up.
Seven year old still fast asleep.

Go downstairs, iron my shirt for work and my seven year old’s uniform for school.
Put the kettle on for a strong coffee.

I got in this morning at 3.00am having been to a police station 18 miles
from my home, representing a female for criminal damage to a camera.  Continue reading

Sundeep Bhatia: legal aid changes could set back ethnic minority solicitors for a generation

As former Chairman of the Society of Asian Lawyers Sundeep Bhatia leaves its committee, he highlights the grave new threat to equality in the profession.

Sundeep Bhatia, solicitor & former Chairman of the Society of Asian Lawyers

Sundeep Bhatia  fears BAME law firms are under threat. Photo: Sundeep Bhatia

Law firms with ethnic minority owners provide a valuable service to local communities, and help to cultivate diversity within the legal profession. For me it was a small Asian firm, Gupta and Partners in Wealdstone, Harrow, which gave me my big break when I started out as a solicitor.

I ran my own criminal defence firm from 1999 to 2006, and in turn gave opportunities to the next generation of BAME criminal defence lawyers. Most of those who applied were from BAME backgrounds; Indian, Pakistani, Middle Eastern and Afro-Caribbean solicitors all worked at my firm. This is one of the reasons why I am passionate about the continued existence of such firms, but under the legal aid reforms it is likely some will now wither on the vine. Continue reading

The Wall Street Journal and Legal Aid Agency statistics

Legal Aid Watch welcomes this contribution from Tim Thomas, a direct access barrier specialising in Commercial Criminal Fraud at 1 Pump Court.

You can read Tim’s article “How the Government should respond to the Operation Cotton judgment – from a barrister who returned one of the briefs” here.

Image courtesy of Tim Thomas

Image courtesy of Tim Thomas

The Wall Street Journal and Legal Aid Agency statistics

Gratifying as it was that the Wall Street Journal chose to publish an article about the Operation Cotton ruling yesterday there are a number of statements in it that were incorrect.

Firstly to describe VHCCs [Very High Cost Cases] as consuming a ‘large chunk of the MOJ’s’ annual £2bn Legal Aid Budget’ is nonsense. If one examines the Legal Aid Agency statistics for 2012/2013 – the most up to date there are – figures on page nine show that VHCCs cost £67.6m in 2012-13, having fallen 26% from the year before.

Even at the height of 2007/8 they were only costing £124m and that was largely down to the fact that many more cases were contracted (until 2011/12 cases had to have a minimum of a 40 day trial estimate, after that it was 60 days – thus less cases are now being contracted – which explains the fall in cost).

The MoJ’s suggestion that the 30% cut will save tens of millions of £s is patently rubbish. The 30% cut on £67.6m saves them £19m. The Government found £200m for pot hole repair in the March 2014 budget but is prepared to undermine the prosecution of Serious Fraud cases;  letting down alleged victims and defendants, as well damaging the limited credibility of the FCA; for a saving of £19m….

 

 

Law Centre Update

Many organisations have warned of the severe impact that cuts to legal aid will have on access to justice.

The Law Centres Network supports advice centres across the UK which work with some of the most vulnerable people in society. They have given us an update on their work, which suggests that services have been hit by funding cuts from multiple sources. However, it also demonstrates a resilience and indicates that some services are innovating under pressure to find alternate models to provide assistance. Explore the figures here:

Law Centre Update

Law Centre Update

Have you sought help or volunteered at a Law Centre? Get in touch with Legal Aid Watch and let us know why these services are so vital for communities across the UK.

Richard Moran (@RichardMMoran)

 

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:

Play button

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.