In this pandemic, the attire of lawyers in Ghana has been added on. Lawyers, in addition to wearing their robes and wigs, are expected to wear nose masks to court, like any other person.
In effect, they now wear a robe, a horsehair wig, and a nose mask.
And it is known that the tradition of wearing horsehair wigs, ‘perukes’ a term derived from the French word perruque, (wearing wig), and gowns by the judiciary, predates the 15th Century. In the 14th Century, during the reign of King Edward III, the accepted costume for nobles who appeared before the court of the King was the robe.
Later in the 17th Century, the gown was adopted, together with the peruke, as the formal apparel of Judges and lawyers, a bid to differentiate the elite from the commoners.
Originally, judges were required to wear purple robes on ordinary days, and red robes in ceremonial instances and criminal matters with the possibility of a death sentence decision. After the death of the King, however, they were changed into mourning gowns of black, a change that was later adopted by all.
After half a century into the end of colonialism, Courts in many parts of Africa still cling to this old English tradition. While the originators of this tradition have long abandoned it, some African jurists have painstakingly written scholarly papers and given lengthy talks on why the wig and gown tradition should be preserved in the Courts.
Many African lawyers are faced with fierce opposition from legal bodies that set strict regulations. Atuguba affirms this in his article, Ghana @ 50: Colonized and Happy, as published in the University of Ghana Faculty of Law compilation, Ghana Law Since Independence, where he writes, “Daily, judges send lawyers and their clients home because the lawyers have forgotten to wear one or other of the uncomfortable regalia.” In 2017, Ghana’s Chief Justice, Her Lordship Sophia Akuffo, cautioned lawyers in the country to wear the wigs and gowns to “preserve the tradition.” This same country is home to lawyer, nationalist and Pan-African culturalist, Kobena Sekyi, nee William Esuman-Gwira Sekyi, famous in Pan-African studies as having actively resisted European rule and cultural imperialism in the early 1900s, to the extent that he vowed never to wear European clothing again, and became the first lawyer in the then Gold Coast colony to appear in Court in a traditional African cloth.
A group of jurists in support of the colonial outfit argues that the long and short wigs worn by judges and lawyers respectively are symbolic to the objectivity of the law. Since the long wigs of the judges cover both ears, it is presumed that the judge’s ears are shut to both parties in the matter to prevent bias. The short wigs of the lawyers, however, imply that the lawyer listens to both parties involved. This symbolism affirms the Audi alteram partem principle (translated to wit as ‘hear the other side’), a cardinal principle of natural justice.
Is this in any way to say that those African countries that no longer practise this obscure tradition do not understand the principles of natural justice? Is this to say that judges in those countries ’tilt’ their heads in the dispensation of justice?
The only effect these costumes have in court, in actual sense, is the heat it promises, as they are not favourable to the African weather. African lawyers often find themselves in too much heat that they do not need the help of a European costume to plant heat in their backs. We could have an endless talk on the harm these wigs and gowns could have on the brain due to the excessive heat in most African courtrooms.
Again, there is the argument that the practice maintains the tradition by bringing dignity and formality in court proceedings. To those in support of this tradition, the air of weight the wigs and gowns carry with them is the only thing needed to bring sanity into the courtrooms. It is my considered view that this argument is highly flawed. The adornment of the wigs and gowns does nothing to the substance of the laws; it is merely a procedural fluff. As asserted by Atuguba in his paper, “Where form, and colonial form at that, is allowed to take so much precedence over substance, the scary weight of the colonial legacy is overt indeed.”
From a realistic viewpoint, the adornment of the wig and gown has little or nothing to do with the administration of justice, like polygamy and adultery have nothing to do with sexual satisfaction. They are merely questions of power and status, and the adornment of these garbs is wholly an indication of the tendency of the African leader
to cling to power.
The only thing this fancy vestment does is to sequester the high and mighty from the ‘inferior’ in the courts. This is a glaring praise to colonialism, massaging the very back of the brutalities meted out to a people through segregation and classification.
While others are of the view that this tradition traces the history of Africans as a people, I am rather of the opinion, in all humility, that it is not necessary that Africans wear this costume to remember their past. How do we heal our wounds if all we do everyday is to open them and touch their wet surfaces? Wearing the wig and gown to remind us of the past is like willingly leading our daughters to the homes of older men who touched them in their sleep at night. Must our daughters live in their homes simply because they said they have stopped raping young girls?
To be honest, this practice is brutish, backward, reactionary and of no significance today, and thus, should be jettisoned. It merely glorifies the masters’ way of intimidating their subjects, inciting eminent fear among the people by divisions and classifications.