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Exploring the lesser-known traditions of the Bar in England and Wales

Exploring the lesser-known traditions of the Bar in England and Wales

Exploring the lesser-known traditions of the Bar in England and Wales. The Bar, as a profession, and Barristers, as esteemed members of said profession, are often considered to be part of a mysterious world that is far different from that of the lay person, especially when you see them wearing the wigs and gowns which makes it seem like something out of Harry Potter´s world. But why are these attires still worn? Why is it a faux pas for barristers to shake hands inside the courtroom? And what does a formal dinner have to do with meeting the requirements to become a Barrister? To answer these questions one must delve into the ancient traditions and intricacies of the Bar which, at best, causes confusion to those of us who have just started their career in this profession and, at worse, seem incomprehensible to those outside of it. 

Barristers’ wigs

If I were to ask you about the first thing that springs to mind when I said the word “barrister”, one of the first things you would probably think about is their wigs they wear in court. This distinctive attire, although rare in other jurisdictions, dates back to the 17th century when it was introduced in England and Wales for lawyers and judges as a symbol of authority and power. The use of wigs was not only a way to respect the customs and traditions of that era, but it was also how legal professionals kept à la mode (in fashion). This trend is something that is, most evidently, still in use now-a-days, although its use has been limited ever since 2007, as wigs are no longer worn in family courts nor the Supreme Court, only in criminal courts. Nevertheless, it is not uncommon to see Barristers both in courts and in their surrounding areas wearing this traditional attire.

Gowns with pockets

The second most distinctive piece of attire worn by Barristers are their gowns. These are not just special in  and of themselves, but they also have a particular feature concealed within them. On the left shoulder of Barristers’ gowns, there is a small pocket sewn, and there are many theories as to why this is the case. One of those theories posits that this pocket, in times past, served as a way for clients to deposit their fees destined for the Barrister in exchange for their services rendered.  Unlike solicitors and lawyers in other jurisdictions, Barristers are not allowed to handle clients’ funds directly hence the need for such invention.Now-a-days, evidently, this is a purely decorative element of the gown, however, this small detail is very much still prevalent.

Qualifying sessions

Lesser known traditions, although existing alongside the others aforementioned, are what are known as qualifying sessions. These sessions are an intrinsic part of a future barristers training. The aim of these sessions is to contribute and build the professional development of future lawyers. Although the exact origin of this tradition is not entirely clear, it used to be the case that these sessions were merely formal dinners organised by and at the Inns of Court where students dined with other, more senior members of the profession. These sessions have been, in the past, on the receiving end of staunch criticism and often characterised as “elitist dinners” with little to no educational value. But, in reality, today they have nothing to do with those old “elitist dinners” but rather a combination of events, talks, and conferences covering a wide variety of topics. All of this is designed to help students gain a better understanding of English law, the role of Barristers within the system, and, more broadly, the rule of law. Interestingly, these sessions are actually something that students are required to attend. To be precise they must go to at least 10 of them so that they can be called to the Bar, the long-awaited ceremony that grants them the title of (Unregistered) Barristers. Without completing these sessions, they cannot progress to become Barristers, which is a unique peculiarity that distinguishes it from other legal systems.

Why Barristers seldom shake hands

A tradition of old is the fact that Barristers would not normally, and in fact do not mostly, shake hands in court. Whilst this may seem peculiar, it does have its logic. The idea behind no hand shaking dates back to the sword-bearing era when men used to carry swords and thus shaking hands with someone was a sign that one was not armed and was not going to attack the other. Barristers were considered true gentlemen and, given their social status, they were exempt from shaking hands since they could safely assume that fellow members of the profession would not attack each other. Recently, however, there are other theories that try to explain this tradition and these maintain that Barristers do not shake hands in court to show that neither party has colluded, acted unethically or maliciously influenced the judicial process. Even though it is something that is not strictly followed every, single time, it is still a tradition that is respected by most members of the profession and something that may confuse some of the more junior members of the Bar.

Coloured ribbons for documents

Finally, Barristers also have a peculiar way to bind and organise specific documents. Whilst, like many of the aforementioned traditions, its origins are unclear, it is estimated that the use of coloured ribbons to organise documents dates back to as early as 1787. Depending on the colour used, it would mean different things: red/pink is normally used for criminal proceedings by the defence, white is for the prosecutor, and black is sometimes used for testamentary instruments. Nowadays, this practice has fallen into disuse largely due to the increased use of technology and electronic documents, especially after the pandemic. But, nevertheless, it is true that sometimes Barristers and Clerks within Chambers do use this system to categorise and organise documents. 

By exploring and explaining the lesser-known traditions of the Bar, I hope that this article has shed some light on a world that is often perceived as distant, complex and elitist. These traditions, though peculiar at first glance, hold profound meaning and reflect the rich history and legal culture of the Bar in England and Wales.

Exploring the lesser-known traditions of the Bar in England and Wales. By Álvaro José Gutiérrez Calero, Legal Consultant at Del Canto Chambers

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