This unusual explanation for why judges in some countries want to hold on to the colonial practice of wearing wigs and gowns in court came from a judge in Malawi as part of a recent decision.

Judge Zione Ntaba of the high court, Malawi, was delivering judgment in the case of Malawi Broadcasting Corporation v The State. She turned down the broadcaster’s application to carry a high-profile murder trial live on television and radio, giving several reasons for her decision.

One study, quoted by counsel in the case and referred to in her judgment, involved a 1997 survey of 351 judges. It is not clear from her summary whether the remarks attributed to judges in defence of wigs and gowns came from that survey or from elsewhere, but it is worth reading all the same.

The State argued that broadcasting court proceedings might encourage judges to act in a way which might be seen as playing to the camera or that they might feel pressurized by public opinion into making a particular decision or passing a particular sentence. The New York State Committee to Review Audio-Visual Coverage of Court Proceedings surveyed 351 judges in 1997, during the initial experiment allowing cameras in court. A disturbing 37% of these judges said that television coverage causes judges to render rulings they otherwise might not issue. Judges may also feel that broadcasts could put them at increased risk of attack by members of the public who do not agree with their decision or who have a more general grudge against the judiciary. They argued one of the reasons in favour of the wearing of wigs and gowns by judges and lawyers has always been that this, to an extent, serves to conceal their identity and reduce security risks.

Read the judgment