A brief look at the dress code of the court

“And don’t try to impress me with your manner of dress, Cause a monkey in silk is a monkey no less” – Rodriguez

The rules of the South African courts prescribe a dress code for legal practitioners who appear before the court. Black Robes are worn by both advocates and attorneys in the High Court. In the Magistrates’ Court, only attorneys are required to wear the robes when appearing.

The dress code, like the legal system, finds its origin in both the English and Dutch traditions. The macabre colour of the robe can be traced back to 1685 the year in which Charles II died. The English bar entered into a period of mourning which lasted longer than expected.

The advocates robe has a piece of triangular cloth attached to the left shoulder which is cut in two lengthways. Its origin is obscure but there exist two theories: The first is that, this was once a money sack for brief fees. According to some, it is divided in half to create two segments, one for gold coins, and the other for silver. The theory is that since advocates were not openly paid for their work, clients made a payment into counsel’s pocket, literally behind their back, to preserve their dignity. The idea was that, if advocates could not see how much they were being paid, the quality of their advocacy in court could not be compromised.

In South Africa a presiding officer’s dress is determined by the nature matter; if the case is a civil, the judge will wear black. If criminal, then red. Constitutional Court Justices have worn Green Robes since February 1995 when the court was formally opened.

For a more in depth discussion on the history of South African court dress see this article by L Kent. http://www.bdlive.co.za/opinion/2012/11/14/judicial-dress-codes-are-due-for-a-makeover

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