Questions around what was appropriate court dress for barristers who are not men began to be considered in 1919, when women were first permitted to practise law and join the Law Society or an Inn of Court. The Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919 opened the way for women to enter the legal profession and, predictably, the focus of attention seemed to be on what they would wear.
More recently, thought is being given to the court dress being worn by non-binary barristers. The Bar Council Guide on Court Dress specifies that “Counsel may wear clothing as appropriate to their chosen gender or any gender”.
The most obviously gendered item of court dress is the collar, with wing collars most often being worn by men and band collars having been worn by women. Band collars are sometimes still referred to as ladies’ collars. However, many female barristers do now wear wing collars, and although it is still rare for a male barrister to wear a band collar, some non-binary barristers do choose this option. As the gowns and wigs are the same for any gender, full court dress is perhaps the easiest type of dress for non-binary barristers to navigate.
Court occasions which require business attire can be a little trickier to deal with than full court dress. We spoke with Alex Benn, a barrister with Red Lion Chambers, and discussed several ways of approaching dressing for court for a barrister for whom wearing a shirt and tie was not appropriate. We wondered whether there was something to be said for wearing a shirt or blouse with a detail or feature at the neck to take the place of a tie, such as a pussy bow or ornamental button piece, which could indicate respect for the formality of the situation. Choosing a fabric which is generally considered to be formal, such as satin, also reinforces this impression. When not in the Crown Court, Alex generally wears a three piece suit with a high neck plain blouse in a dark colour, which they feel works well for them.
Alex also mentioned that, as they use the title Mx for court purposes, they find it helpful to add that detail as a short comment in the Crown Court Digital Case System before hearings. The Crown Court sign-in system does not have a designated space for titles to be provided, so judges may make assumptions based on the names they are given. Alex has found that providing their title at the outset helps to mitigate any uncertainty a judge might have when encountering a barrister for whom they have not been given a title. The Equal Treatment Bench Book helpfully indicates that gender neutral terminology should be accommodated if it is known that the person prefers it.
Although the formal guidance has been in place for some time, both in the Equal Treatment Bench Book and the Bar Council’s advice, it will no doubt take some time before barristers and judges become accustomed to addressing non-binary legal professionals. However, for non-binary barristers, finding the courtwear which best represents them is perhaps becoming a little easier.