Hong Kong’s Solicitors Want to Wear the Same Wigs as Barristers

But why would any lawyer want the right to put on a headpiece that practitioners in other former British colonies have abandoned?

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© Bobby Yip / REUTERS

Judges wear wigs at a ceremony marking the beginning of the new legal year in Hong Kong on Jan. 9, 2012

A 17th century British tradition has ignited a feud among Hong Kong lawyers. The city’s solicitors want the right to don judicial wigs — those handcrafted horsehair headpieces worn by barristers when representing clients in higher courts. The solicitors’ request prompted passionate defense from the wig-wearers, who argue that the public would be confused between the two different branches of the legal profession if all practitioners were to wear them, the Wall Street Journal reported.

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According to the South China Morning Post, the city’s top judge ruled last Friday against the Law Society of Hong Kong, which had asked Chief Justice Geoffrey Ma Tao-li, on behalf of its 8,000 solicitor members, to allow them to wear the headpiece known as a peruke or a periwig. Although the disappointed Law Society said it wouldn’t pursue the matter further, the wig divide is far from over. Dieter Yih, the organization’s president, worries that not wearing the white curly tresses may subject solicitors to discrimination. Yih argued that there might be a perception among some jury members that a wig-wearing lawyer is better, the Wall Street Journal reported.

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The spat reflects the judicial legacy of more than 150 years of British rule. Although reunited with China in 1997, Hong Kong has preserved the British common-law system. Lawyers are split between solicitors, who have limited rights of audience in court, and barristers, who have unlimited rights and mark the distinction by wearing woven white wigs.

Kevin Tang, a Hong Kong barrister, told the Wall Street Journal that the wigs are more than symbols of professional dignity — they also highlight the independent traditions of the city’s judiciary, which Hong Kong columnist Frank Ching called “absolutely vital” to Hong Kong at a time of growing mainland Chinese influence. That influence is already being reflected in legal circles by increasing preferences for Mandarin-speaking lawyers in the city’s top law firms and a marked decrease in opportunities for barristers who speak English only, even though it is one of the city’s official languages and has historically been the preferred language of the courts.

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By demanding the right to wear wigs, Hong Kong’s solicitors are bucking a trend. Even in Britain, the cumbersome, uncomfortable headpiece is no longer compulsory in most cases — not even in the Supreme Court. According to the Washington Post, Tom Little, then chairman of the Young Barristers Committee of the Bar Council, said he understood the solemn-looking wigs might make young lawyers feel more professional, but Little said they should worry more about important issues.

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