Many would agree that the respect and regard which the legal profession had in the past is fast eroding the profession. With the growing incidences of dehumanization and victimization of lawyers in the society, one may not be wrong to question if there is still nobility in the noble profession. The values of the profession have again come under scrutiny recently with the trending images on social media of lawyers wearing lawyer’s robes to take pictures that are extremely questionable by the profession’s regulations and standards.

This write up considers the history of lawyers’ robes, the rules of the profession on its use in Nigeria, and concludes with a call to the Nigerian Bar Association to check the growing trend of violations of the wig and gown in order to preserve the sanctity of the profession.

History of Lawyer’s Robes in Nigeria

The “wig and gown” which is the lawyers robe generally regarded as a symbol of legal practice in Nigeria was received from England as part of our colonial inheritance. Both the wig and the black gown have a mildly separate history and origin into the English system. The ‘wig’ as it is known today is a shortened word from ‘periwig’ which originates from the French word for a wigs which is “perruque”.  The wigs were first worn by King Louis XIV of France during his reign from 1643 to 1715. It was said that he wore the wigs to disguise his prematurely balding scalp, which historians believe was caused by syphilis.

Due to the fashionable manner the wigs made King Louis XIV look, the fashion choice was copied by the European upper- and middle-classes, including his cousin, Charles II, the King of England who made wigs an essential wear for polite society. Wigs soon became a popular wear for the wealthy elites in the society and the trend was retained by the courts and the legal profession in England.

On the other hand, the lawyer’s black gown originated as a gown for mourning after the death of King Charles II in 1685. The legal profession again continued to wear the gown as a symbol of the sombre nature of the profession and its neutrality.

Over the years, the wearing of the wig and gown by lawyers have become more than a fashion item. It is a rule enshrined in the professional guidelines of the profession which not only makes the clothing choice necessary but also regulates how and when it is to be worn.

Use of lawyer’s robes

The use of lawyer’s robes in Nigeria today is regulated by the Rules of Professional Conduct for Legal Practitioners (RPC) 2007, and the general customs of the bar.  

When a lawyer is not permitted to wear the wig and gown

A lawyer’s wig and gown is now more than a fashion attire which can be used as a lawyer pleases. There are defined instances when the attire cannot be worn by a legal practitioner and these are contained in the RPC which regulates the conduct of lawyers in Nigeria.

Rules 8 (4) of the Rules of Professional Conduct for Legal Practitioners provides that a lawyer in a full time salaried employment may represent his employer as an officer or agent in cases where the employer is permitted by law to appear by an officer or agent, and in such cases the lawyer shall not wear robes.

Rule 36(f) of the same Rules provides that when in a courtroom a lawyer shall not remain within the Bar or wear the lawyer’s robes when conducting a case in which he is a party or giving evidence. This inclusion in the rules came as a response to the challenge of the appearance of Chief Gani Fawehinmi on his own behalf in his robes in the case of CHIEF GANI FAWEHINMI V. NIGERIAN BAR ASSOCIATION & ORS (No.2) (1989) LPELR-1259(SC).

Rule 45 (2) of the RPC further provides that a lawyer shall not wear the Barrister’s or Senior Advocates robe-

  • On any occasion other than in Court except as may be directed or permitted by the Bar Council; or
  • Where conducting his own case as party to a legal proceeding in Court; or
  • Giving evidence in a legal proceeding in Court.

It is important to point out that while Rule 36 (f) and Rule 45(2)(b) are very similar, the language suggests that there is a very slight difference in the implication of the two provisions. Rule 36(f) requires that a lawyer shall not be robed in a case in which he is a Party generally, but Rule 45(2)(b) is against a lawyer being robed when conducting  his own case as a party to a legal proceeding in Court. Hence by Rule 45(2)(b) a lawyer cannot be in court in his robe once he is a party in a matter, even though he is not the one conducting the case for or against himself.

It is also noteworthy that the “Court” which requires wearing the lawyer’s robes does not include inferior Courts such as Magistrate Courts or Customary Courts. Indeed, Rule 45(1) of the RPC has already specified that the rule applies to a lawyer appearing before a High Court, the Court of Appeal or the Supreme Court, and even in these superior courts the court can permit a lawyer to appear without his robe.

When a lawyer is required to wear the wig and gown

Generally, the Bar Council may permit other occasions for the wearing of lawyer’s robes and the permissible instances are taught in the preliminary lectures on Professional ethics in the Nigerian law School. The instances which form the customary practice of the bar on when a lawyer is permitted to wear the lawyer’s robes are:

  1. When appearing before superior Courts in Nigeria.
  2. During the call to the Nigerian Bar of qualified lawyers from the Nigerian Law School.
  3. During the ceremony on commencement of the new legal year.
  4. During the funeral service of a judge or legal practitioner.

Currently there is no regulation or customary practice of the bar which permits a Lawyer to wear the lawyer’s robes for taking photos for their political campaigns, advertisements of non-legal related services or shooting music videos to be published in public.  There is therefore no justification for the use of the lawyer’s robes for such purposes.

A call for NBA to monitor and take disciplinary action.

With the disturbing trend of desecration of the lawyers robe, many have argued that the time is ripe for us to abandon the archaic practice of the wig and gown policy, which has even began to phase out from the country we borrowed it from See  However, until these arguments influence the guidelines of the profession and the attire of the profession is changed, the sanctity of the lawyer’s dressing and his professional conduct must be upheld.

There is therefore an urgent need for lawyers to remind ourselves of the ethics and decorum demanded of the profession we have found ourselves, particularly with regards to the use and abuse of the wig and the gown. The Nigerian Bar Association is reminded that there is need to look into the incidents of desecration of the lawyer’s robes and a need for urgent disciplinary actions against the culprits.  As the Court of Appeal put it in UBN PLC v. JOHNSON & ANOR (2008) LPELR-5062(CA) we must “remind ourselves at large of the ethics of the legal profession, the etiquette, the decorum and the dignity that comes along with membership of the profession… God forbid the day when by our utterances and conduct we would have lost the wig and gown even while still wearing them. Let us learn to respect ourselves as members of the learned and noble profession…” Per OWOADE, J.C.A

Oliver Omoredia Esq.

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