Canada is rich with traditions that were inherited from the British, particularly in the legal space. Our legal system combines elements of English common law and French civil law.
One of the traditions that has survived the centuries is the wearing of court robes for judges. Do Canadian lawyers wear court robes as well? Yes, but the dress code varies according to province and circumstances.
This article will tackle the history and etiquette behind the proper legal attire for lawyers in Canada and how they vary between provinces.
The history of proper court dress in Canada mirrors developments in England that happened at the same time. Canada was a British colony and continues to be a part of the Commonwealth, so they followed similar dress codes in court.
Royal and ecclesiastical history heavily influenced how judges and lawyers dressed in England. Before the legal profession was established, monks and other religious figures were the administrators of justice in Europe. European rulers gradually replaced them with judges and lawyers in the 15th and 16th centuries. They continued to wear clothes similar to their predecessors, which reflected their authority to mete out justice by royal decree.
Judicial dress during this time varied between European nations, but not by much. Judges in the early modern period wore wide-sleeved pleated robes over sleeved tunics. However, high-ranking judges may have worn sleeveless versions called tabards. They also wore closed mantles that covered their shoulders up to the mid-upper arm and miniver-lined hoods.
However, there was no uniformity of colour. Judicial robes were not black as they are today. Rather, depending on the prevailing royal taste, they could be any hue of red, pink, violet, or blue.
The clothes of lawyers of the Middle Ages closely resembled what the judges wore because they were considered judicial apprentices. The main difference was the stuffed shoulder pads, long-sleeved gloves, and colour. Barristers in England mostly wore black robes, as dictated by the Inns of Court rules. Solicitors didn’t present in court, so they wore long, open gowns with winged sleeves until the 17th century.
The tradition of court officials wearing robes in England began in 1327. Edward III established the dress code for judges attending the royal court so that they could distinguish themselves from everyone else. However, what they wore depended on their rank and position. Though there wasn’t an established code for barristers, many high-ranking lawyers dressed as richly as judges, wearing opulent gowns of red or maroon trimmed with gold thread and fur.
In 1637, the Privy Council ruled that lawyers should dress according to their social status. They had to wear long gowns made of a sensible blend of wool, silk, and mohair. While they could modify it with silk tufts or other adornments, such displays of wealth ended with the death of Charles II in 1685. As a tribute, lawyers started wearing black mourning gowns, including hoods. The hood continues today in the form of a pocket of cloth hanging from the left shoulder.
Unfortunately, legal dress history in the UK isn’t as straightforward as the above might suggest. Monarchs would impose complex laws to reflect their tastes, which made the rules confusing.
In an effort to bring uniformity, judges sitting at Westminster issued a decree in 1635 called the Judges’ Rules. It required judges to wear taffeta-lined silk robes in black or violet from spring to mid-autumn. They also had to wear silk- or fur-lined deep cuffs, hood, mantle, and a wig. Miniver replaced taffeta for the lining in winter. Judges wore a special scarlet dress during holy days or Lord Mayor visits.
The legal dress code for lawyers at this time was governed by the Inns of Court rather than by royal decree. It was also around this time that judges and barristers began wearing wigs as a sign of their profession. They continue to do so to this day.
Generally, lawyers wore plain black robes with pleated shoulders and bell sleeves. However, depending on their rank, there were some differences. Advocates wore stiff wing collars with bands hanging down the front, a dark suit, and black or gray pinstripe trousers. Female lawyers wore a dark suit with collarette bands instead of a wing collar.
Junior barristers wore a stuff gownsman, which is an open-fronted black gown with open sleeves. They had a gathered yoke, buttons, and ribbons for decoration. Solicitors, on the other hand, wore similar clothes but without gathered sleeves and with square collars.
Those appointed as King’s Counsel wore silk gowns with long closed sleeves and a flap collar. They wore long wigs, lace cuffs, jabots, black breeches, silk stockings, and buckled shoes on special occasions.
Lawyers and judges have worn robes in Canadian courts since the 16th century, and as a British colony, it became an accepted practice. The attire has since developed to suit Canada’s legal system, such as eliminating wigs, but still retaining a few elements that reflect its origin.
Like the UK, the dress code for Canadian lawyers initially lacked consistency. Judges would sometimes wear business attire when the mode of travel (horseback) prohibited anything fancier. However, the BC Provincial Court Judges Association passed a resolution in 1975 to establish today’s robe rules.
Canadian lawyers wear robes in court to acknowledge the customs of the legal profession as they originated in the UK. The appropriate robes depend on the wearer’s legal role and situation. The practice has remained relatively consistent for decades.
The standard robe for Canadian lawyers is black wool with long, wide sleeves that extend to the wrist. Flat white tabs lay against the chest, and the robe extends to the feet for a dignified and formal look. The white shirt worn under the robe pairs with a black petticoat. Most lawyers carry a blue velvet bag to carry their robes because it’s bad form to wear them outside the courtroom.
Canadian lawyers receive Queen’s Counsel, or QC, appointments for exceptional merit and outstanding contribution to the legal profession and community. As such, they wear black silk robes of a more formal design to signify their honoured position.
The practice of wearing a wig in court started in the 1700s when it was fashionable. Some say it was an attempt to prevent the spread of lice. At any rate, wigs went out of style, and courts in the UK allowed judges and barristers to wear smaller ones.
Canadian lawyers and judges also initially wore wigs, but they discontinued the practice in 1905 because they were uncomfortable and expensive.
Generally, Canadian lawyers wear robes in court when the judge wears one. Of course, it would help them if they had advanced notice. It would be safe for them to have their robes handy for appearances in the Superior Courts and Courts of Appeal, with the exception of Small Claims Court. Lawyers would never wear robes when appearing before the Masters.
Lawyers generally wear robes when appearing before the Federal Court, the Tax Court, and the Supreme Court of Canada. However, they may wear business attire when appearing in provincial or territorial courts and in chambers. The exception is Quebec, where wearing court robes is standard practice for lawyers.
When appearing in Superior Court hearings, lawyers wear black pants or skirts, black waistcoats, white shirts with winged collars, tabs, and knee-length robes. Gray pinstripe pants are also acceptable. Wearing the same attire in court serves as an equalizer, as all lawyers look the same before the judge.
Court attire varies across provinces in Canada. Lawyers in Alberta, for example, wear business attire for most court appearances. They only wear robes when presenting viva voce (live) evidence with witnesses in the Court of King’s Bench or Court of Appeals.
In Ontario, lawyers wear court robes when appearing in the Superior Court of Justice. However, pregnant lawyers don’t have to wear waistcoats, tabs, and other attire that might not accommodate their condition.
Below are general guidelines for wearing robes in each province and territory.
Lawyers in Ontario should know the general rules for going to court. They must wear gowns if they’re appearing before the Ontario Superior Court of Justice for motions, appeals, and trials. This includes personal injury and other civil proceedings. However, they don’t need to wear a gown for case settlements, trial management conferences, pre-trials, trial scheduling, or if they’re appearing before Assignment Court.
Generally, lawyers wear court robes when appearing before a judge, but not before a Master. However, there are exceptions. For example, if a lawyer is appearing at Small Claims Court, even though it’s before a judge, they don’t need to wear a robe.
Since these exceptions may be somewhat confusing, it’s best to err on the side of caution. If you’re a personal injury lawyer in Ontario, bring your court robe and accessories with you to court. You can also rent a locker in the courthouse and keep your robe and other accessories stored there.
Lawyers in BC have clearer guidelines on when to wear court robes. Generally, they must wear their gowns to court unless they’re appearing before a Master or in chambers. A lawyer who doesn’t wear a court robe won’t be heard. BC has no explicit gowning exemptions, even for pregnant lawyers.
The Court of Queen’s Bench issued a notice in 2017 detailing when gowns must be worn. Lawyers must wear their court robes for civil and criminal trials, summary conviction appeals, and small claims appeals. Lawyers don’t need to wear gowns in motions court, bail hearings, and when they’re appearing in chambers for pre-trials, case conferences, and judicially assisted dispute resolution.
Lawyers in family court must wear gowns for trials and uncontested divorces. However, if the uncontested divorce follows immediately from a pre-trial settlement, then lawyers don’t have to wear gowns. Gowns are also not worn for fast-track trials, motions, pre-trials, and case conferences.
Manitoba has gowning exemptions for personal circumstances, such as disability and maternity reasons. However, courtroom attire should still be dark in colour and decorous.
The Court of Appeals issued a directive for court attire. It requires lawyers to wear gowns when appearing in person or virtually before a panel of justices for appeal hearings, panel applications, and bar admissions. Gowns aren’t necessary when appearing before a single appeal judge, or at the Sentence Speak to List, Unscheduled Civil Appeals List or Criminal Speak to List.
The rules provide exemptions for pregnancy or personal circumstances. Lawyers planning to modify their attire should advise the registrar or clerk on duty before attending court.
The Court of Queen’s Bench updated its Gowning Policy in 2023. Lawyers are required to wear gowns even if they’re appearing remotely before the court. However, gowning isn’t necessary if lawyers are appearing for pre-trial conferences, in chambers, or bail reviews.
The policy defines gowning as a court shirt, vest, tabs, and robe. Lawyers must wear dress pants or skirts in black, charcoal gray, or morning stripe. Shoes or pumps must also be black.
Gowning exemptions exist for personal circumstances. Lawyers wearing modified attire should advise the court clerk or registrar before attending court.
The Court of Appeals also issued a gowning protocol, requiring lawyers to wear gowns when appearing in-person or remotely before a panel of judges. If, however, the appearance is before a single judge, gowning isn’t required.
The protocol also prohibits embellishing court attire, such as wearing ribbons or symbols.
The Supreme Court of Newfoundland and Labrador issued a Notice to the Profession on court attire in 2016. It requires gowning for all criminal proceedings, including applications, bail hearings, and summary conviction appeal hearings. Cases involving direct oral evidence, such as divorce and child protection proceedings, family cases, and civil trials, also require gowns.
Chambers attire, which consists of a black barrister’s waistcoat or blazer and vest, white shirt, and court tie, is required for all appearances in court where a witness won’t be directly examined. Even in the summer months, chambers attire must be worn.
Lawyers can wear traditional business attire for conferences held outside a courtroom, such as settlement and pre-trial conferences.
Though there are exemptions to accommodate pregnancy, the modified attire should be dark.
The Court Etiquette for the Court of Appeal of Alberta requires lawyers to wear gowns when appearing in-person and remotely before a panel of justices, panel applications, and bar admissions. Gowns aren’t required when appearing before a single appeal judge or Unscheduled Civil Appeals, Sentence Speak to, or Criminal Speak to Lists.
There are exemptions to gowning, such as if the lawyer has a disability or is pregnant. Though lawyers can modify their court attire to accommodate their conditions, the attire must be dark in colour and they must notify the registrar or court clerk before attending court.
Generally, the Nova Scotia Court of Appeal requires lawyers to wear traditional legal attire, which consists of a waistcoat, robe, wing collar shirt, tabs, black or dark gray trousers or a skirt, and black shoes. Business attire is acceptable for motions heard in chambers. Lawyers may be exempt from wearing gowns for medical conditions, pregnancy, or disability.
The Nunavut Court of Justice issued a Directive in 2009 that established a unique dress code. With no exceptions, lawyers must wear court robes for criminal and civil matters involving a jury.
Lawyers must wear business attire for all non-jury matters, including preliminary inquiries, docket appearances, and trials, before the Nunavut Court of Justice in Iqaluit.
The presiding judge may refuse to hear lawyers appearing in inappropriate attire before the court. The judge may also grant dress code exemptions at their discretion.
The Courts of Prince Edward Island issued a Practice Note regarding courtroom decorum and legal etiquette. Lawyers must wear gowns in court, except in uncontested chambers. They must wear striped or dark trousers or conservative dresses, white shirts, ties, and dark shoes under the robe. Lawyers should only wear gowns in court and not in public.
The Court of Quebec established regulation C-25.01, r. 9 Section 22, which outlines the dress code for everyone in court. Except in civil practice, lawyers must wear black robes closed in the front over black jackets, white shirts, and dress shoes. Accessories include bands and collars.
In situations when court robes aren’t necessary, male lawyers should wear plain trousers, jackets, shirts, and ties. Female lawyers should wear plain dresses, skirts, or trousers with blouses and jackets.
The Court of Queen’s Bench issued the rules for court dress in 2015. Lawyers must wear gowns for trial and where witnesses will be examined. The judge, however, may dispense with gowning only where counsel are present.
Unless the judge requires otherwise, gowning isn’t necessary for hearings on an interlocutory motion.
Gowning for male barristers consists of dark-coloured trousers, long-sleeved, cuffed white shirts, winged collars, tabs, and court vests under their gowns. Female barristers must wear long-sleeved court vests, dark-coloured knee-length skirts (or trousers), long-sleeved, cuffed white shirts, winged collars, and tabs.
When gowning isn’t necessary, lawyers must wear business attire.
The Supreme Court of Yukon issued Practice Direction General-15 in 2020, outlining when gowning is required.
Lawyers must wear court robes for proceedings scheduled outside of regular chambers. These proceedings include hearings (under Rule 10), trials, summary trials and judgments, judicial reviews, appeals, and criminal applications.
Gowning isn’t necessary for family or civil applications and for criminal, civil, and family proceedings scheduled within regular chambers. These also include case management or settlement conferences and appearance days.
There are exemptions to gowning for medical conditions, disability, or pregnancy. The modified attire, however, must be dark in colour, and lawyers with modified attire should notify the court in advance.
Except for getting rid of the wigs, there hasn’t been any real attempt to do away with the tradition of wearing court robes in Canada.
Supporters argue that robes visually separate judges and lawyers from everyone else in the courtroom. Keeping a uniform look for lawyers also levels the playing field, eliminating bias based on appearance. This is especially true for female lawyers, who are typically judged by the way they dress.
Robes are also cost-effective. Young lawyers don’t have to spend money on expensive suits to make a favourable impact on the judge and jury. While lawyers’ robes go for as little as $200, most lawyers go to Harcourts, which is generally more expensive.
Some lawyers, however, argue that they have the right to be comfortably dressed in court. Court robes and the attendant layers of clothing can get oppressively hot in the summer. Nevertheless, these dissenting voices appear to be the minority, as court robes continue to be standard practice in Canadian courtrooms.
Courts in Canada take their dress code seriously. Judges may refuse to hear lawyers who fail to comply with the rules in court.
Courts in Canada take their dress code seriously. Judges may refuse to hear lawyers who fail to comply with the rules in court.
English monarchs established the general idea of court robes for judges and lawyers, which was primarily done to imbue them with authority. It evolved into a common practice that made its way to the colonies, including Canada.
Canadian lawyers wearing court robes is just one of the many traditions inherited from colonial days. While the provinces and territories have different dress codes, they have a common goal: maintain the court’s dignity.
Advocates of gowning also claim that it equalizes the situation for lawyers, making up for the relative discomfort of wearing them.
Diamond and Diamond Lawyers strongly believe in any practice that promotes equality for all Canadians. As a personal injury law firm, we strive to protect the rights of everyone to fair treatment in the legal system. If wearing court robes can help victims get the justice they deserve, we are all for it.
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Yes, they do. Generally, judges wear black silk robes that open in front and may include sashes over the left or right shoulder. However, judges in the Supreme Court of Canada wear fur-lined red robes for special occasions.
The term “lawyer” encompasses anyone qualified to give legal advice. A barrister is someone who represents clients in court. In the UK, you’re either a barrister or a solicitor. In Canada, you must be both a barrister and solicitor, making you a lawyer.
Personal injury cases are under the purview of the Ontario Superior Court of Justice. According to provincial rules, Canadian lawyers before a judge in the Superior Court of Justice must wear robes if the case goes to trial. However, they don’t have to wear one for conferences and pre-trial settlements.
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