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Willy Mutunga’s campaign against colonial-era robes and wigs disintegrates

Former Chief Justice Willy Mutunga was the earring-wearing, liberal wild card who took Kenya’s judicial system by storm. Not only did his appointment shake the foundations of the system but his views on propriety challenged them entirely as a means to “radically transform the Judiciary”.



In 2011, during former Chief Justice Mutunga’s first presiding, all seven Supreme Court judges appeared in formal business suits – contrary to the distinctive red robes traditionally worn. To add to the disruption, Mutunga went on to advise lawyers that it was no longer necessary for them to appear in the gowns and horsehair wigs that were the standard requirement in both the High Court and Court of Appeal.

Mutunga then issued a circular detailing that the colonial forms of address, namely ‘My Lord’ and ‘My Lady’, inherited from the English court, would be replaced by ‘Your Honour’.

According to the Daily Nation, his reasoning was that the Supreme Court, as a new institution at the time, had yet to establish a dress code unlike the other courts, making it clear in various speeches and papers that he considered the prevailing judicial attire an archaic colonial imposition of no use in modern Kenya.

Despite commissioning a study, which, after several hearings, concluded that there was no need for Supreme Court judges to be robed, many High Court and Appeal Court judges continued to wear the wigs, as did lawyers appearing before the two courts. They felt that the distinctive attire was either a source of pride and prestige or a symbol of the profession.

Kenya’s Chief Justice David Maraga. Photo: Wiki commons

Read: African judges wearing wigs a symbol of British colonialism? Julius Malema thinks so

A distinction in ideology and identity

Almost all of these progressive changes have been brought to an unfortunate end by the current Chief Justice, David Maraga. In distinct contrast to proceedings led by his predecessor and pioneer, Supreme Court President Willy Mutunga, a notice issued by the Registrar of the Supreme Court convening the pre-trial conference dealing with Raila Odinga’s presidential election petition, concluded with the following reminder: “Kindly note that all Counsel appearing before the Court shall be fully robed.”

Since then, judges and lawyers have donned their formal robes but, notably, had the option to dispense with the horsehair wigs and remain flexible on the forms of address. While this might represent a few steps backward, Rome was not built in a day and we may yet see the complete abandoning of colonial garb in Kenya.