Time to dump Judges’ Shs1.6 billion attire?

Left to right: Court of Appeal justices Cheborion Barishaki, Remmy Kasule (retired), then Deputy Chief Justice Alfonse Owiny-Dollo (now Chief Justice), Kenneth Kakuru, and Elizabeth Musoke at the hearing of the age limit case in Mbale District in 2018.  PHOTO/MICHAEL KAKUMIRIZI

What you need to know:

  • The wigs are worn by Justices of the High Court, Court of Appeal and Supreme Court.

A protracted and polarising low-intensity debate about whether Ugandan judges should wear or abandon wearing wigs and robs introduced by British colonialists, has bubbled to the surface.

This publication can reveal that each of Uganda’s 82 judges is on appointment entitled to a pair each of wigs, wing collars and bands, robes, two striped trousers for male and skirts for female judges.

Each pair of the uniform set costs Shs20m, meaning the Judiciary spends Shs1.6b to formally dress the 82 judges of High Court, Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court, which is the highest appellate court in the land.

One set of the official attire with a longer gown is used for ceremonies, according to the judiciary, while judges use the version with a shorter gown when presiding over court sessions.

Dissenters argue that the Shs1.6b could better be used for recruiting new judicial officer, or improving welfare of incumbents, in an institution where staff in the past went on strike over less-than-satisfactory remuneration.   

A number of Commonwealth countries, among them neighbouring Kenya, have abandoned wigs and elaborate gowns for judges as Great Britain, the colonial master in whose imitation Ugandan judges don the unform, did in November 2011.

Then United Kingdom Supreme Court President Lord Phillips said the departure in a dress code traced to the 1600s was to make the courts “as accessible as possible”, the BBC reported.    

There has been an argument in legal circles that the full uniform, which literally conceals the physical identity of a judicial officer, is intimidating for litigants and witnesses while some judges describe the formal attire as needlessly expensive and “uncomfortable” in Uganda’s year-round weather.

During the 5th Joan Kagezi Memorial Lecture, Justice Susan Okalany, a judge of the International Crimes Division of the High Court, said she no longer wears a wig during court sessions.

Justice Okalany, who made the revelation in the presence of President Museveni, reasoned that the wigs are “uncomfortable” and “scare away children” who come to testify in human trafficking or sexual abuse cases.
She, however, said she dons the wigs only for official functions.

In his remarks, President Museveni endorsed Justice Okalany’s position not to wearing judicial wigs made out of horse hair.

We were unable to establish if the wigs, collar bands and gowns are imported from Britain, which would suggest an independent Uganda sending its limited forex to the benefit of its former colonial master.

“…When you come for a memorial lecture, you address broader issues of justice like when I found Justice Susan whom I am very glad doesn’t put on a wig, but again she spoilt everything when she said she only wears it during ceremonies. I thought she had abandoned it completely,” Mr Museveni said to a thunderous applause by more than 300 prosecutors.

During the Parliament Speaker and Deputy Speaker elections in March, this year, the President said: “You see the wigs they are putting on. Wigs! Why are you putting on wigs? I was a Speaker [of National Resistance Council], but [I] never put on the wig. I am not mad. In Tanzania, they have changed, they don’t put on wigs.”
Judicial wigs are long white horsehair locks worn in Uganda by justices of the High Court, Court of Appeal and Supreme Court.

They were introduced by the colonial British government to its colonies including Uganda, Kenya, Ghana, Zimbabwe, and Tanzania, among others.

Mr Museveni’s strident remarks have kicked new life into a protracted low-intensity debate in legal circles on the one hand to retain the uniforms to uphold the prestige of the profession and on the other, to abandon them as they add next to no value to justice administration.

“The issue of wigs cannot bring justice to the people we serve. With due respect, kindly focus on the vision of the Judiciary which you were called to serve,” one judicial officer, who preferred anonymity, said last week.

Another added: “Lets focus on delivery of timely and quality justice than wigs.”

The Judiciary is grappling with huge case backlogs that it attributes to fewer-than-needed numbers of under-resourced staff as well as constraints originating from other Justice, Law and Order Sector (JLOS) players.

Those who still want the judicial wigs and robes to be used as judicial attires, speaking on condition of anonymity to freely express themselves, said: “It becomes a problem if we abuse it. The dress code of judges is more than just a sisal wig or whatever material is used. It signifies authority, power, wisdom and commands respect. I love my judicial robe. The dress code made me work towards it.”

A magistrate took issue with the proposal to abandon the judges’ unforms, arguing that “…and some of us, we are working hard to wear it before it’s removed”.
Chief Justice Alfonse Owiny-Dollo, who heads the Judiciary, could not be drawn to this the polarising matter in detail.

“There are ongoing discussions within the legal circles on this matter and at an appropriate time, we shall communicate our position on the same,” he said.

Justice Taddeo Asiimwe, the president of the Uganda Judicial Officers’ Association (UJOA), an umbrella association of all judicial officers in the country, spoke in favour of the wigs and robes.

“As long as the Judiciary still recognises it as the official attire, we shall continue wearing it until such a time when the Judiciary head says to the contrary but as of now, they are still recognised,” he said.

He added: “I think the debate is wasting people’s time, it’s an individual choice on what they should wear. I don’t think they should dictate on what I should put on and if I am convinced that I need an official gown or wig, I can wear it.”

Some of the judicial officers are proposing that instead of completely doing away with the colonial judicial attires, an African attire should be fashioned to replace them.

“That way, Ugandans will participate in the administrations of justice as enshrined in the Constitution, for judicial power is derived from them,” registrar Godfrey Kaweesa, the former president of UJOA, said.
The uniforms, he suggested, could be locally-tailored to save on foreign currency.

Africans ditch uniform

In the neighbouring Kenya, former Chief Justice, Justice Willy Mutunga, called for the removal of judicial wigs from the courtroom, arguing that they were a foreign burden imposed on foreigners.
His administration swapped the traditional British red robes for a ‘Kenyanised’ green-and-yellow dressing.

However, the change in the judicial attires wasn’t welcomed by many Kenyan judges and lawyers who saw the wigs and robes as their own uniforms, items that elevate a courtroom, despite them being colonial wear.

In 2019, the Constitutional Court in Malawi suspended the wearing of judicial wigs and robes by judges and lawyers due to the heat wave. Various media outlets reported that the temperatures in some parts of the southern African country had hit 45 degrees Celsius, or 113 degrees Fahrenheit, making wearing the thick judicial uniforms. The attire was henceforth suspended. 

History of wigs

In July 2017, the Independent newspaper of the United Kingdom reported that the curly horsehair wigs have been used in courts since the 1600s, during the reign of Charles II, when they became a symbol of the British judicial system. Some historians note that French King Louis XIV initially popularised the wigs and robes when he used it allegedly to conceal his balding head.

According to the newspaper, by the 18th century, the judicial attire was used to distinguish judges, lawyers and other members of the upper class. Enter the word “bigwig” into the lexicon. Other British Commonwealth countries such as Australia and Canada inherited the wigs and robes, which they have now ditched.

Attire occasion

According to the Mr Jamson Karemani, the Judiciary spokesman, when a judge has a civil case to preside over in an open court room, they wear a black robe. But if they preside over a criminal case, they don a red robe. Mr Karemani adds that when a judge is presiding over a case from the chambers, they do not need to wear a judicial robe or wig. “…and if they are attending an official function, they wear a long robe and long wig which are ceremonial attires. The lower Bench (magistrates) wears a black robe, but without a wig unlike their upper Bench counterparts,” he said.

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