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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Students launch group to resist legal aid cuts

Students have founded a new organisation to defend legal aid in the UK

Protesters rally against legal aid cuts during lawyers' strike yesterday, London

Protesters rally against legal aid cuts during lawyers’ strike yesterday, London


Students For Legal Aid announced its arrival via Twitter today, stating that ‘students are planning the next action’ after a historic walkout by lawyers on Monday.

The group is a ‘new network of students committed to fighting for the protection of legal aid’, and on Twitter it has already notched up nearly 400 followers.

It says it will hold talks by lawyers, supporters and those affected by cuts across the country – ‘followed swiftly by further action, of course’.

Bold and radical rhetoric is striking in its Tweets so far:

https://twitter.com/Stdnts4LegalAid/status/420631945337257984

https://twitter.com/Stdnts4LegalAid/status/420650266384273408

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Legal Aid Strike: Tweets of the Day

Lawyers didn’t turn up for work today in a mass protest against legal aid cuts. TOM BELGER picks out the brightest, boldest and best of the Twittersphere

SO WHAT HAPPENED?

WHY ARE LAWYERS ANGRY?

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Barristers protest against legal aid cuts in strike outside courts across UK

Hundreds of lawyers demonstrate outside courts across Britain to show their opposition to legal aid cutbacks

Criminal barristers protest in a 'strike' against legal aid cuts outside Westminster Magistrate Court, London

Protesters rally against legal aid cuts outside Westminster Magistrate Court, London

Criminal barristers failed to show up in court most major cities today, in a mass walkout unprecedented in the history of the criminal bar.

Several hundred people braved the rain outside Westminster Magistrates’ Court in London for one of the morning’s largest demonstrations.

Criminal Bar Association chair Nigel Lithman said cuts to lawyers’ fees would undermine quality representation, with low incomes putting would-be barristers off the criminal bar.

Speaking to the crowd, he attacked Chris Grayling for painting lawyers as “fat cats”. He accusing the Justice Secretary of “manipulating” figures on pay, to help justify controversial reforms that include planned cuts of £220m.

Lithman, a QC, said: “We cost a pittance and we represent great value for money. We stand on the brink of the collapse of the criminal justice system. After 37 years at the criminal bar I don’t say that lightly.”

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VIDEO: Social mobility in the legal aid sector

Last month, Legal Aid Watch reported on the release of a new report on social mobility in the legal aid profession.

“Social mobility and diversity in the legal aid sector: One step forward, two steps back” was launched by Young Legal Aid Lawyers on October 30, 2013.

In case you missed the event, scroll down to see our coverage of the Q&A session with the following experts:

Panellists:

Raphael Rowe, Investigative Journalist

David Johnston, CEO Social Mobility Foundation

Lucy Scott-Moncrieff, Director Scott-Moncrieff and Associates Ltd

Simao Paxi-Cato, Junior Barrister, Invictus Chambers

Chris Topping, Partner, Broudie Jackson Canter Solicitors

James Wakefield, Director of the Council of the Inns of Court

Part 1 – Introduction

Part 2

The Q&A session begins with “What are the wider consequences of a lack of social mobility within the legal profession?”

Part 3

David Johnston, CEO Social Mobility Foundation responds to “why are talented people being held back?” in Young Legal Aid Lawyers Q&A session.

Part 4

“What advice would you give to people looking for a career in legal aid?”

Part 5

“How can careers advice be improved in schools to ensure social mobility within the profession?”

Part 6

“Should there be a cap on law students entering vocational courses?”

Part 7

“Could the Inns of Court and the Law Society do more?”

Part 8

“Is there a danger that the profession will be seen as  ‘caring’ due to the prominence of female legal aid lawyers?”

Part 9

“How do you feel about press coverage of legal aid cuts?  Is a Press strategy needed?”

Part 10

“Can the government turn a blind eye to the impact its proposals will have on diversity? Is change all up to the professionals?”

Part 11

“Who is advocating the idea that people should represent themselves?”

Part 12

“What can we do to counter the stereotype of lawyers as greedy?”

Part 13

“How can we tackle the problem of unpaid work experience?”

 

This week in legal aid:

 

Engraving of a Victorian courtroom scene © Sheffield Libraries, Archives and Information (Licensed under Creative Commons)

Engraving of a Victorian courtroom scene © Sheffield Libraries, Archives and Information (Licensed under Creative Commons)

A barrister has vowed that the Bar will fight cuts to justice, in an unusual open letter to the Lord Chancellor that has been doing the rounds on Twitter this week.

A London Underground traffic update board was snapped on November 19 at Westminster Tube station with the following message:

FAO Lord Chancellor,

Your consultation paper is a sham.

Justice is in jeopardy.

The Bar will fight for her.

Not a penny more cuts.

Regards,

A Barrister

Meanwhile, in the first of two news stories featuring the Criminal Bar Association (CBA), top UK barrister and CBA Chairman has warned that legal aid cuts could lead to murderers and rapists walking free.

“Without wishing to alarm the public, the impact of cuts will mean more cases collapse with murderers, rapists and child-sex offenders walking free.”

In an interview with the Mirror on November 17, Nigel Lithman QC said that “top lawyers would refuse to take on long, serious cases as they would not be paid enough.”

According to the Mirror, he said hourly rates would dip below the minimum wage and commercial barristers would earn in an hour what criminal barristers earn in a ­fortnight.

“The ­criminal justice system is being turned into a ­wasteland.”

What do you think? What constitutes a fair salary for legal aid lawyers? Tweet us your views, take our poll and add your comments below.

Legal Aid Watch has also been keeping a close eye on movements within the Criminal Bar as barristers voted to protest this week:

Poster from the CBA (Credit: Criminal Bar Association)

Poster from the CBA (Credit: Criminal Bar Association)

According to Legal Voice UK, the vote took place at the CBA’s national delegates’ conference in London on November 17.  The government’s proposals for legal aid include a further 17.5% cut to defence barristers’ fees in criminal legal aid cases.

Mark George QC has been quoted as saying:

“I appreciate for some of you, this may sound radical. It is radical. We are in a radical situation. It’s time to fix the bayonets because we are not going to go down without a fight.”

However, CBA Chairman Nigel Lithman QC urged for “caution” as a number of barristers at the conference reportedly asked for a strike date.

William Hogarth, credit: Creative Commons

William Hogarth, credit: Creative Commons

Meanwhile, according to the Law Society Gazette, the Law Society Council has spoken out in defense of the legal aid restructuring.

On a more technological note, a personal injury firm based in Manchester has created a smartphone application that will help with cuts to fees.  The Law Society Gazette reports that Aequitas Legal will attempt to sell the application to other firms in the hope of saving clients money through instant communication.

Similarly, Clifford Chance announced on November 15 that it will take steps to fund free legal advice.  The global firm will give £73,000 to three legal advice centres to help them continue to support vulnerable communities in the face of public funding cuts.

Finally, the Yorkshire Evening Post ran a story on November 14 on the closure of Leeds Law Centre.  Cuts to legal aid have been blamed for what has been described as a “shock move”.

The Harehills and Chapeltown Law Centre shut their doors on November 7 after more than 30 years of legal aid services.

This week in legal aid

In his first press briefing since taking the office of Lord Chief Justice in October, Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd said he was “not persuaded” that legal aid cuts have so far affected access to justice. He voiced his concerns, however, that the judiciary might suffer from legal aid cuts in the future as talented individuals are discouraged from entering the profession. “The level of remuneration that has to be paid to those who are doing publicly funded work must be commensurate with an amount that will attract people into it,” he said.

These concerns were echoed in a letter from senior QCs to The Independent.

legal aid chris grayling

Justice Secretary Chris Grayling

The letter, signed by the leaders of the Bar Council’s six circuits in England and Wales, criticised Justice Secretary Chris Grayling’s plans to cut legal aid fees for criminal cases, saying they will cause “irreparable harm” to the legal system because lawyers will exit the profession and “find something else to do”.

At the Bar’s annual conference on Saturday, Dominic Grieve, the Attorney General, warned barristers against turning down new legal aid briefs as a form of protest against cuts. “The disruption caused to the courts may bring about the changes you desire, but equally it also carries with it the very serious risk that within government there will simply be a view that people should look elsewhere for the services we [barristers] provided” he said.

attorney general dominic grieve legal aid

Attorney General Dominic Grieve

On Monday, however, the Criminal Bar Association reported that barristers are refusing to act in 40 very high cost criminal cases in a protest over cuts to legal aid fees. Solicitors have also called for a special meeting of the Law Society, urging a vote of no-confidence in the leadership’s “appeasement and abject surrender” to government legal aid cuts.

Finally, a new Law Society report finds that a record number of newly qualified solicitors are undertaking pro bono work. Almost half of all assistant and associate solicitors are providing pro bono services in 2013, up 10% on the previous year.