When Nigeria gained independent from Britain in October 1960, the country inherited the common law of England and the doctrines of equity, together with statutes of general application which were in force in England by January 1900. Apart from the subsequent statutory enactments and subsidiary legislation which include laws passed by the National Assembly, decrees and edicts of successive military governments, there has been almost no significant legislative or judicial innovation in well-nigh 57 years of Nigerian independence.
As far as the institutional legal system is concerned, the outsider may be forgiven for thinking that almost nothing had changed in Nigeria, especially in the area of sartorial habits, since independence. How ludicrous it seems in a federal republic, legal professionals stuck to traditional British ornament of wigs and gowns like bees to honey, creating a sense of other-worldliness. The wearing of this ornament had earlier been denounced in Britain. For example: “Who would have supposed,” wrote a 19th-century Lord Chancellor of England, Lord John Campbell, in The Lives of the Lord Chancellors (1845), “that this grotesque ornament … would be considered indispensably necessary for the administration of justice in the middle of the nineteenth century.”
Now in the 21st century, but our legal professionals still crave to wear the traditional British horse-hair wig. This is not all too redolent of a mature legal profession. States exist in a horizontal relationship to one another, and one wonders if our legal professionals really need elaborate paraphernalia of the 18th-centruy British court dress to command respect. Methinks respect for or confidence in the legal profession does not depend on what its practitioners wear but on the high quality of their work. Legal professionals would command no respect or confidence if their sartorial habits were not in consonance with professional morality and/or societal values.
In England, where the wearing of a horse-hair wig had emerged as a social convention among English gentlemen in the 17th and 18th centuries and later abandoned by all except bishops, barristers and judges towards the end of the 18th century, there is an ongoing debate about the abolishment of court wigs and gowns. In 1990, a former Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales, Justice Taylor of Gosforth, decried the wearing of these bizarre accoutrements during the BBC interview, stating that: “I believe that at a stroke we could disarm a good deal of public misunderstanding of the legal profession if we stopped wearing wigs and gowns in court.”
Today, wigs and gowns have been abandoned in the Civil Division of the Court of Appeal, and the Justices of the UK Supreme Court are adorned only in ordinary suits to hear appeals. In the House of Lords case, Mallalieu v Drummond (Inspector of Taxes)  2 A.C. 861, where this issue had come to the fore, Lord Brightman said: “What sort of clothes a barrister should wear … is a matter of good taste and common sense, the criterion being that they should be appropriate to the dignity of the occasion.” (at 869). Thus, Sir Mota Singh, QC, Britain’s first Crown Court judge from an Asian ethnic minority, did not wear a horse-hair wig until his death in 2016. When Baroness Boothroyd took her seat as the first woman Speaker of the House of Commons in 1992, she dispensed with the traditional wig, and she remained unwigged throughout her speakership. And so, as Baroness Helena Kennedy QC, a leading British barrister, who has canvassed getting rid of wigs and gowns said recently, “It’s one thing which has to go,” she said. “It’s also profoundly uncomfortable, especially the wig.”
Overzealous wife calls her husband ‘‘father,” as the saying goes in Yoruba (Alásejù tí ńpoko ní baba), and we sometimes embrace this maxim by promoting the propriety of the foreigner’s custom and practice beyond reasonable limits. Take for example, if it were accepted that scrapping wigs might make an exception for special occasions, e.g., during law graduates’ admission to the Bar, would it then be justified for the Nigerian Law School to deny, for instance, Miss Firdaus Amasa who insisted on wearing a hijab (head cover), alongside the wig and gown, a call to the Bar? I believe the answer is NO. By compelling Miss Amasa to remove her hijab, the Law School is deemed to have demonstrated an overzealous affectation to 18th-century English relic. This affectation cannot be considered a genuine and determining Law School requirement justifying discrimination on the grounds of Miss Amasa’s religious beliefs. It is an undoubted petty gesture, but which does not give Miss Amasa any measure of satisfaction.
To digress: The issue that arises in Miss Amasa’s case does not relate to her Islamic faith alone. The wearing of religious apparel is not limited to one specific religion. Many Indian women, for instance, use the end of their long saris to cover their heads, and Sikh women use a long shawl called chunni. Several other nations have similar garments as well. Of course, there may be mandatory rules to wear a head cover in all circumstance, although these may not necessarily apply to all adherents of the faith in question. There may also be a case of one or more styles of apparel available to adherents, who may be free to choose to wear these styles permanently when in public or at times when considered appropriate.
Nor is the issue limited exclusively to the wearing of religious apparel. The use of religious signs is common amongst certain religious adherents, and these signs may vary in both size and purport. In some cases, adherents to the Christian faith, for example, may choose to wear crosses or crucifixes round the neck or have them pinned to an apparel in public, on certain occasions or in all circumstances. Considering all these issues, it is difficult to conceive how, for instance, a female Muslim could be discreet or inconspicuous in her observance of the requirement to wear hijab if her belief dictates that it be worn in public at all times.
Moreover, it is important to note that wearing of religious apparel is not limited to one specific gender. For example, male adherents to the Sikh faith are, in general, required to wear a dastar (or turban) at all times and may not remove it in public. In Britain, where the wigs and gowns originated, male Sikh barristers are not compelled to remove their turban in order to be admitted into the Bar. Indeed, Sikh barristers can wear turbans instead of wigs at any occasions. Therefore, it is not reasonable to expect religious adherents of any faith to remove their religious head cover, whether mandatory or elective, because of the wishes of a certain public body, such as the Nigerian Law School.
We live in a heavily religion-influenced society that emphasises surface piety. This is backed by national and international law, where people are legally allowed to manifest any beliefs of their choice without interference from other individuals, groups or state. One may argue that religion, in the modern world, is a problem and not a solution. However, we see religion reasserting its priority and to some extent its values in our daily lives. That means we still need religion, and we will need it until we are psychologically prepared for the existential change leaving religion behind. Until then, there is a need to respect the significance of religion and the meaning or impact it has on the lives of its adherents.
So much for the digression: The wearing of wigs and gowns contributes to legal pomposity and lay suspicion. More importantly, such wearing also represents the ossification of the law and its remoteness from those it seeks to serve. For a mature legal professional body like the Council of Legal Education, continuity of what is best about its heritage is a matter of paramount importance in the 21st century. In other words, the presumption of innocence, the right to a fair hearing, the value of freedom of expression – all legacies of the common law of England – deserve the protection the CLE. To that extent, it is time the CLE, and by extension, the Nigerian Law School, stopped the protection of 18th-century sartorial habits that require legal professionals to keep sweating under wigs and gowns in hot and steamy courtrooms.
- Dr Ajetunmobi, a scholar, wrote in from London, UK
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