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What’s the deal with lawyers’ robes?

In Québec courtrooms, you’ll notice nearly every lawyer is dressed the same. Long black robes, often with white collars. Here in Québec, they’re called by their French name, toges.

It’s part of a tradition that stretches back to the courts of both the United Kingdom and France, where we can trace the origins of many of our legal norms.

Lawyers’ robes in the United Kingdom

In the 1300s, judges first began wearing robes, which were similar in style to the robes worn by the upper echelons of society around the royal court, and by professors at universities. In a 1635 decree, the judges of Westminster detailed the style which has held remarkably stable over the years in an official dress code:

“The Judges in Term are to sit at Westminster in the Court in their Black or Violet Gownes, whether they will; and a hood of the same colour put over their heads, and their Mantles above all; the end of the Hood handing over behind; wearing their Velvet caps, and Coyfes of lawn, and cornered caps.”

Some parts of the judicial uniform have fallen out of fashion, such as the caps and the hoods. In the U.K., the powdered wig that came into fashion in the 1700s is still worn, though smaller, today. Canadian lawyers do not wear the wigs, though.

Lawyers’ robes in France

Beginning in the 13th century, lawyers and judges in France were identified by their distinct robes. Unlike in the U.K., the history of French court robes is closely tied to the clergy. At that point in history, justice was considered divine, and lawyer’s robes even included 33 buttons to represent the age of Jesus Christ at his death. This practice was brought to an end under the French Revolution, but was reinstated by Napoleon in 1810 and has continued ever since.

In an explanatory post on the B.C. provincial court website, that court explains the robes’ purpose this way:

“Judges’ robes lend dignity to judicial proceedings, distinguish independent courts from other decision-making tribunals, and remind people of the important role our courts play in a democratic society — resolving disputes peacefully and fairly, and upholding our constitution and the rule of law.”

Robes are worn by all members of the court, and the colours and style can denote their rank. Judges, for example, have special cuffs signifying their rank in the court.

It may seem like a formality from a bygone era, but robes have the effect of evening the playing field, at least visually, ensuring that all parties appear equal to the Court.

Goldwater-Dubé specializes in family law and divorce. If you think we can help, contact us on our website or call us at (514) 861-4367 to set up a consultation.