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The Importance of Judicial Robes in Courtroom Proceedings

by Dominic Chandler
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Wearing judicial robes in court is a centuries-old tradition that marks a significant aspect of courtroom proceedings, creating a sense of structure and status that helps trials and hearings to run smoothly. 

In this article, we’re going to take you through some of the important ways judicial robes can have an effect in court from the differences between each court to the significance of the multitude of colours worn. 

Different Judicial Robes in Different Courts

The most important role judge and barrister robes play is to differentiate between the courts, creating a sense of uniformity within each court while also providing structure to the various proceedings. 

The Heads of Division and the Court of Appeal

It is easiest to identify a judge in one of these divisions by the gold tabs they wear with their civil gown, a practice introduced throughout the courts in the 2008 judicial dress reforms that were largely spearheaded by Betty Jackson. 

The outfit changes for criminal trials and civil trials. The first is characterised by the classic black silk gown and a short wig while the latter makes use of the aforementioned civil gown without the wig. 

This is largely because a criminal trial is a more serious and formal offence and the addition of the wig symbolises the intensity and gravity of the hearing whereas a civil court has the luxury of being more relaxed in the way it handles cases. 

Circuit Judges

Circuit judges (those appointed to one of the six circuits of England and Wales) will be seen wearing violet robes, a practice introduced in 1915 on the suggestion of Judge Woodfall. 

These judges are members of the Crown and County Courts within their particular circuit, covering both criminal and civil cases. 

Like the Heads of Division and the judges in the Court of Appeal, their dress differs to denote the formality of the situation and aid the judges in exuding authority. In criminal courts, the violet robe is adorned with a red sash while in civil court, the robe instead has a lilac sash. 

High Court Judges

High Court judges are most famously associated with the colour red, a strong colour often associated with boldness, power and leadership, important qualities for any High Court judge to possess.

The fully red robes are only worn by judges presiding over criminal cases while civil judges wear the black gown with red tabs. On Red Letter Days however, all High Court judges wear scarlet. 

These Red Letter Days include:

  • The birthday of the current sovereign, Charles III (November 14th)
  • All Saints (November 1st)
  • Candlemas (February 2nd)
  • St David (March 1st)
  • Conversion of St Paul (January 25th
  • St Mathias (February 24th)
  • St Simon and St Jude (October 28th)

This helps to highlight the importance of judicial robes in a religious sense, staying in line with the old traditions of court as they were in the 17th century and earlier, while the difference in robes between criminal and civil proceedings helps keep the politics of court tightly ordered. 

District Judges

District judges are best identified by the blue tabs they wear as part of their robes and their role in open court doesn’t call for the addition of a wig, allowing the court proceedings to be more comfortable overall. 

Similarly, deputy district judges also don’t wear a wig, simply wearing a banded black coat and a black robe, allowing them to maintain uniformity and anonymity during the proceedings. 

High Court Masters Group

The High Court Masters Group is characterised by the civil robe accessorised with pink tabs at the neck, helping to differentiate them from other members of the High Court and emphasising the varying levels of power and authority within the proceedings. 

Members of the Masters Group can come from any one of these courts and divisions:

  • Masters of The Chancery
  • Masters of the Queen’s Bench Division
  • District Judges of the Principal Registry of the Family Division
  • Bankruptcy Registrars
  • Costs Judges

Colour Symbolism in Judicial Robes

You will have noticed in the first part of the article that colour was mentioned fairly frequently as a means of discerning the different types of judges but what does each of these colours mean in relation to the values of the law?

Some of the most used colours in judicial robes and their meanings include:

  • Black – formality, seriousness, respect
  • Purple – wisdom, ambition, royalty. 
  • Blue – stability, confidence, intelligence
  • Red – boldness, power, leadership
  • Pink – calmness, temperance, compassion
  • Gold – accomplishment, divinity, power
  • White – purity, anonymity, objectiveness

Much of the colour theory in judicial courtwear is about the strength of character and the impartiality of the judge in regards to each case they preside over. 

Green was also used in the 16th century as the main colour of summer robes, bringing to mind growth, stability and renewal. The green was discontinued as a robe in 1534, perhaps to reflect a shift in the values of the law. 

Black and red though remain prevalent colours within the courts. The red helps to portray the authority and power of the judges as they pass judgement while the uniform black helps to maintain an element of anonymity. The plainness detaches the judge from emotional perceptions and symbolises the need for fair and unbiased rulings. 

One of the earliest meanings of black in court though was as a mark of mourning for the death of a monarch, either Charles II or Queen Mary. This, along with the royal connotations of purple, show heavily the influence of the monarchy in the law, creating a wider structure within society and symbolising the law’s loyalty to the sovereign state. 

The Importance of Wigs in Court

Wigs are just as symbolic a part of court proceedings as the judges’ robes. Wigs are a symbol of tradition, politeness and respect, having been born from the fashion of Charles II who was influenced in turn by Louis XIV. 

While wigs are worn rarely in court nowadays except in criminal trials and ceremonious occasions, they still hold power, setting the judge apart from others in the court as a symbol of their ultimate power. 

The wig is also helpful in maintaining the judge’s anonymity. The distance created as a result allows their rulings to be impartial but in more serious cases, a judge’s anonymity is paramount to protecting their identity outside of court. 

Security and safety is a vital part of court proceedings both for the defendant and the members of the court and these values are reflected in the anonymous and uniform outfit of a black robe and a wig. 

Judicial robes help to create a sense of order during trials and hearings and while the colours may not mean anything to the attendees of court, each has a deep and sometimes historic meaning that allows them to remain in touch with the traditions of the past while also making sure the values of court remain modern and continue to progress.


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