Denver Bar Association
December 2005
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Powdered Wigs In Court

by Alicia McCommons

The first question Americans seem to ask about English courts is: "Do they really wear those white powdered wigs?" On a recent hop across the pond, my curiosity got the better of me, and I decided to find out.

I went searching for the infamous wigs while in York, England. York is famous for its ancient wall — remarkably intact for a wall that more than 500 years ago kept out England’s enemies — and York Minster, the largest medieval structure in the United Kingdom. (I did receive the coveted "certificate of completion" for climbing the 275 stairs to the top of the cathedral’s Gothic tower.)

York Minister

After strolling among quaint buildings, I spotted a sign that said "Royal Court of Justice." Bingo. Enthusiastically, I scrambled up the cement stairs into the old, rust-colored building, where I was promptly denied access because the court was hearing juvenile cases. The fact that I was an American lawyer with a desire to to learn didn’t sway the guard’s decision.

The York Wall

She said that this was a municipal court (despite the Royal name) and suggested that, if I wanted to see some "real action," I should try the Crown Court just down the street. The Crown Court, like our District Court, is a criminal court of first instance where more serious criminal charges are tried.

I walked briskly down the cobblestone street, past Clifford’s Tower (a medieval fortress atop a hill that stands out among the buildings below), my heart beating rapidly at the thought of being able to see those magnificent wigs first-hand.

Clifford’s Tower

I arrived at Her Majesty’s Crown Court, a large, sandstone building with Lady Justice adorning the top. Despite the grand façade, the entry area was small, with a high ceiling and white walls. The security guard greeted me with a reminder to empty my pockets and walk through the large metal detector. (Some things never change, no matter where you go.)

After again proclaiming my love for legal proceedings, the guard informed me that a trial was in progress, and I could observe the courtroom right behind him. I reluctantly surrendered my camera — no photos of the wigs in action this day.

I opened the wooden door behind the guard’s desk and climbed four stairs to the public gallery, which resembled the balcony of an old theater. As my eyes adjusted to the dim light, I sat on
a creaky, dark brown bench and began to focus on the events taking place below me, less than 15 yards away.

Crown Court

At long last, the glorious powdered wigs! These short wigs had curls on the side that lay just above the shoulder and tied down the back (longer wigs are saved for ceremonial occasions). Today’s barristers wear the convenient white or off-white powderless wigs, made from horsehair, in the 18th century style, as a symbol of their office. All of the barristers and the judge wore off-white (or dirty gray) wigs, and long, flowing black robes.

My attention turned immediately to the prosecutor, as one section of his powdered wig was standing straight up. I wondered how the witness could keep from laughing.

I was watching a trial by indictment — what we call a jury trial. After briefly contemplating how much time it must take them to comb their wigs, I was able to pick up on the defense’s argument. The barrister for the defense was questioning one of the defendants, a nice looking man in his late twenties, about a late-night party in which another man was beaten up.

As the defendant answered the questions, I noticed he had no chair — he was standing close to the judge behind a small part of the bench that jutted out and covered the middle of his body. (So this is where we get the term "witness stand.") The defendant stood at attention, arms behind his back and feet apart, attentively answering questions, possibly trying not to pass out. The 12 jurors, sitting to the right of the defense, listened intently as the barrister went into detail about the blood on the defendant’s trousers.

The examination and cross-examination was reminiscent of American courts as the barrister set up the defense: the defendants were merely good Samaritans who tried to help the victim, while the three men the police really wanted were still on the loose; any blood on the defendant’s trousers got there as he bent down to ask the victim if he was alright. Though the young man’s story initially seemed plausible, the Crown delivered a devastating cross-examination, painting a picture of the strapping young lad fleeing the scene because he feared the victim (lying bloody and motionless) might lash out at him, running right past the police officers coming to his aid. Then, a surprising question: "And the reason you refused to give a statement to the police after your arrest is because you knew that you were guilty, wasn’t it?" I resisted the urge to jump up and say: "Hey! You can’t ask that!" Apparently, in England, you can.

During the questioning, the judge interrupted several times. I was amazed at how blatantly the judge interjected his opinion about the evidence or testimony in front of the jury. Even if he didn’t say anything, his questioning certainly led the jury to doubt the veracity of the witness’s statements: "Do you expect this Court to believe … ?"

As I traveled across the Atlantic to return to Denver, I couldn’t help but feel a new appreciation for the protections of our legal system and the impartiality of our judges. I will sure miss seeing those wigs, though.

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