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What Do Canadian Lawyers Wear in Court?


What Do Canadian Lawyers Wear in Court?

In the Canadian criminal justice system, the people are represented by separate yet equally important groups, in a variety of formal robes. These are their stories…

Okay, that may be the Law and Order opening, but it holds true; Canada has a long history of courtroom attire, with cross-continental tradition dating back hundreds of years. Modern courtrooms feature a spectrum of long black or red robes, honoring a centuries old practice and establishing a respect for the profession today.

From Family Court to the Supreme court of Canada, robes take on different forms and color details corresponding to one’s legal role, and while wigs have been left in the past, this tradition of robes holds true to today. The robes have remained mostly consistent over the years, and despite some cultural pushback and objections from the lawyers themselves, robes are still standard practice.

Why the long gown?

People often associate long dress robes with British courts, the image of powdered-wig men proceeding into a courtroom with an air of importance and tradition. This image isn’t far off, as Canada became independent in 1982 and is still part of the British commonwealth, maintaining tradition from its long-time mother nation. The Queen does not interfere with Canada’s governance, but she remains a modern figurehead. Even to today, robes are a classic element of the courtroom, lending a sense of dignity and refinement to legal proceedings and serving as a visual reminder of the important work being done. They are generally less ornate than the robes of the 15th century and have been more streamlined, but remain linked nonetheless.

Though they evolved over many years, robes have essentially been a status symbol and classification system. Historians believe the practice of wearing robes dates back 7 centuries to the 1300s, where scholars wore them to university and aristocrats donned them at royal court. From velvet trimmings to rich colors, robes became a privilege signifier and were extended to lawyers when they were eligible to appear in court.

What do the robes mean today?

Until 1975, there was less consistency among robe tradition. Between the late 1800s, while people traveled by horseback, through the 1970s there was mixed attire among judges and lawyers. Some judges wore robes while others wore business attire, but the BC Provincial Court Judges Association thought it important to establish more consistency and passed a decree outlining the robe rules we see today.

While the practice of wearing robes extends from the British tradition, maintaining the robes today is a way to establish equality in the courtroom. The uniformity of court robes helps remove disparity between attire and status, creating a more equitable environment for court proceedings. In short and in theory, robes help reduce bias and distraction of individuality and allow for lawyers and judges to focus on the subject at hand equally. Robes become a universal signal of competency in the profession and equality among justice seekers – though the efficacy has been challenged.

Where do the robes come from?

A common lawyer’s robes can cost anywhere from $200 to $2,000, as each robe is custom-made. The 9 Supreme Court Justices sport the rarest robes, and different styles and colors correspond to their role and status. In addition to the robe, an extensive uniform is required, including a waistcoat, a winged collar and two stiff, pressed white tabs, and either black or grey-striped pants or skirt. The oldest robe maker in North America, Harcourts, was founded in 1842 and proudly upholds the tradition of outfitting Canada’s legal representatives.

The range of accoutrements and combinations may change depending on circumstance, but it is year-round. Even down to cufflinks featuring the scales of justice, Canadians don’t mess around with their legal attire. According to the Federation of Law Societies of Canada, the governing body of legal professionals and the judicial system, there are 126,400 lawyers in Canada. That’s a lot of robe-making.

Different robes for different folks

Canadian courts are composed of a few kinds of lawyers and judges, including Federal, Small Claims, Masters, and Queen’s Counsel, a special title given to lawyers who have contributed exceptionally to the profession. Robes correspond to these roles, similarly to the robes professors wear at an American graduation depending on their degree. While a Federal Court judge wears a robe featuring a gold sash, Tax Court judges wear purple. This visual differentiation creates a sense of order and signifies their area of expertise.

In the Supreme Court of Canada, special occasions in Court, Senate and Parliament merit their own style of robe, somewhat resembling Santa’s red and white suit. The red gown is trimmed with white fur and looks somewhat like a layered poncho. On any given day, however, the Supreme Court wears simple black silk robes.

Lower-ranking judges, lawyers and clerks wear simpler black robes and an ornate white collar, known as “Geneva bands” inspired by clergy attire in Europe. Depending on the court setting, occasion, and representative status, attire can be modified to be more or less formal with cuffs, collars, sashes and crests.

Wigging out

The classic image of an English court includes the infamous white powdered wig, though these have been ruled out in Canada. English judges began wearing horsehair wigs in the 1600s as they were en vogue, and even as a way to reduce the spread of lice. When wigs began to go out of style among the people in the 1700s, the courts simply reduced their wig size, and some British commonwealth countries uphold the practice today. In 1905, however, British Columbia did away with the tradition of wigs as they were expensive and hot during warmer months.

Have they ever tried to modernize?

Aside from the specification of no wigs, it appears little has been done to formally and universally do away with the tradition. Barristers, or the Canadian title for trial lawyers, are allowed to wear business clothes in smaller courts settings and chambers, creating a more informal but still professional environment. Various lawyers over the years have expressed their frustration with the tradition from a comfort standpoint, arguing that during the summer months the multiple layers of gown are oppressively hot.

Others have stated it creates a separation from the people being represented. While the goal of robes is to create a sense of uniformity among lawyers and judges and establish a common thread of dignity in the profession, one could argue clothing isn’t the most important signifier. It may be having an unintended effect of alienating a client from their representation, while allowing business attire might close that gap a bit more. Some lawyers have argued that they should be able to practice law comfortably, and that their robe shouldn’t be the only sign of their competency. Regardless, robes shouldn’t make or break the importance of the work or interfere with the legal matters at hand.

Objection, your honor

Like in any society, biases and prejudices unfortunately pervade. In theory, the Canadian judicial robes are meant to establish uniformity among lawyers and convey their expertise and earned status. By creating a uniform, the focus hopefully redirects to clients and focusing on legal issues at hand. In reality, lawyers have observed the robes as a short-term solution to deeper injustices.
Some Toronto-based lawyers have pointed out that if it’s not one thing, it’s another; hairstyles, especially among women of color, unfairly become a subject of critique, and identity still gets policed even when attire has been standardized. Though the intention is to equalize lawyers, deep-rooted gender and identity bias can still emerge. Luckily there is more conversation surrounding societal need for inclusion and bias work, and hopefully truer equity can be established.

Seeing Red

The Honourable Richard Wagner - Canadian Supreme Court JusticeThe highest court in Canada, similarly to the U.S., is the Canadian Supreme Court. Their distinct red robes, resembling Santa’s velvet suit and sometimes made light of by Canadian citizens, have also received some backlash in recent years. Despite only being worn for a handful of annual occasions, the famous red robes are accented with white mink fur, which has elicited anger from activists. While the look is traditional and the robes are passed down from one justice to another, the need for real fur lacks explanation and the Supreme Court has been urged to modernize with something more animal-friendly and earth conscious. As one former Justice framed it, the Supreme Court is meant to be a representation of the people, and if there is a way to keep with modern times while better serving the people, so be it.

Photo: The Right Honourable Richard Wagner, P.C., Chief Justice of Canada, Credit: Wikipedia

A Brief Summary

While tradition has its place and history should be recognized, there has been conversation around modernizing these extensive regulations for legal attire. With such deep ties to the past – very, very past of several hundred years – one can only wonder where modernization comes into play while balancing tradition. Though there have been several iterations of lawyer’s robes, the style has remained rather consistent with its roots to the 14th century. The needle has only moved so much in the way of modernizing, so time will tell. For now, there is order in the court.

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