Malawi’s constitutional court has suspended wearing wigs and robes by lawyers and judges in the courtroom.
The court was forced to suspend the wearing of traditional white and black robes because of soaring temperatures.
A former British protectorate, Malawi is among several African countries that continue to hold on to the colonial practice of lawyers and judges wearing white wigs and black robes in courtrooms.
According to Malawi’s Department of Meteorological Services, temperatures in some parts of the country have hit 45 degrees Celsius (113 degrees Fahrenheit).
“It’s simple really. The heatwave this week meant that the gowns and wigs were uncomfortable,” a Malawian lawyer Chikosa Silungwe told The Thomson Reuters Foundation.
The registrar for the Southern African nation’s high court and a judicial spokeswoman, Agnes Patemba, said lawyers and judges will go back to the wigs and gowns once the temperature simmers down.
“There is a heatwave and that has compelled the court to indeed do away with wigs and gowns. It is not the first time this has been done,” Patemba said.
The tradition of wearing horsehair wigs, perukes, ‘a term derived from the French word perruque (weaving 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 (horsehair wig) 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 the tradition have long abandoned it.
Mixed reactions on call for total abolishing
Some African jurists have written scholarly papers and given talks on why the wig and gown tradition should not be abolished in their courts.
Many African lawyers are against the wearing of wigs and gowns but they are faced with fierce opposition from legal bodies that set strict regulations. Last year, Ghana’s Chief Justice, Sophia Akuffo, cautioned lawyers in the country to wear the wigs to “preserve the tradition”.
A group of jurists in support of the colonial outfit argue 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.