Does a lawyer’s dress affect his or her performance in court?

Members from the law society of Kenya (front left to right) Vice chairperson Lillian Omondi, Chairman Eric Mutua, Council member Faith Waigwa, Commissioner for oaths and notaries public Judith Sijeni, (back left to right) upcountry council member Caroline Khasoa, council member James Aggrey Mwamu and advocate Grace A. Okumu. Photo\Emma Nzioka

What you need to know:

  • Council says the decision was prompted by the disregard of the dress code by members

The miniskirt debate is back. And this time round, it is being conducted at the very top of the country’s legal fraternity.

The emotive debate was revived this week after a new directive by the Law Society of Kenya (LSK) on members’ dress code.

Last Wednesday, the LSK council released a revised dress code that bars female lawyers from wearing “revealing” clothes including sleeveless blouses and dresses.

LSK secretary Apollo Mboya and chairman Eric Mutua said wearing of culottes, shorts and jeans is not allowed. Skirts must also be of dark colours and of at least knee length.

On Thursday, LSK chairman Mr Mutu and Mr Mboya gave conflicting statements on the matter, with Mr Mutua saying the council would review the code following protests by members while Mr Mboya maintained the rules would not be amended.

But, while the LSK council’s directive was detailed – including guidelines on how male lawyers should dress – it was the miniskirts issue that touched off a raging debate throughout the country.

The directive has been in place for over two decades and the latest move was just a review. Dressing is part of the law curriculum both at the undergraduate level and at the Kenya Law School, which is a mandatory course before lawyers can be admitted to the bar.

But some lawyers, particularly those freshly admitted to the bar, have allegedly gone overboard in matters dressing, prompting the LSK’s new directive.

This was triggered by the apparent laissez-faire attitude to the dress code by Chief Justice Willy Mutunga. Dr Mutunga and his former deputy Nancy Baraza were sworn into office in September 2011 without the traditional red robes and white wigs.

The CJ, who wears an ear stud, later said it was not mandatory for lawyers to appear in court with the wigs, terming them ancient.

Law student Joyner Okonjo says this partly made the young lawyers to ignore the existing dress code.

“I support LSK. Some people have relaxed and taken the matter too far,” she said.

To her, when a female lawyer appears in court in a miniskirt or tight clothing, it distracts not just the judge but also the other male lawyers.

“When you wear a miniskirt, the attention is diverted from what you are saying to what you are wearing,” she argues. “The judge, who is expected to take notes as well as observe the body behaviour of the witnesses and the accused, might miss crucial points while concentrating on your legs.”

Victoria Njoroge also supports the directive, saying the dignity of the legal profession must be upheld. She said lawyers must dress in a manner that complements their duties as well as the seriousness of the matters they are discussing.

She, however, said women lawyers who wish to wear miniskirts in their offices or chambers should be free to do so if they feel their personal liberties are being infringed upon.

Karen Muthee, who has been an advocate for two months, says that while she agrees with the ban on miniskirts she differs with the directive on blouses and the colour of shoes.

LSK wants all blouses to be black, charcoal, grey, navy blue or similar colours and may be printed materials of a combination of the colours together with cream and white.

Shoes that expose the toes are banned except for those suffering from feet ailments. Shoes must be black, grey, navy blue or brown.

“I think purple is cool and I should be allowed to match a purple blouse with purple shoes, for instance,” Ms Muthee said.

LSK council member Faith Waigwa said the directive should be amended to reflect the changing times. She said the decree that women lawyers should wear blazers covering their hips is not feasible as modern suits have shorter coats.

Ms Waigwa said peep-toe shoes were in fashion and lawyers should be allowed to wear them.

“I know the council is reasonable and will consider the issues from our members and come to a consensus,” she said.

But law student Deborah Nyokabi says the directive is out to oppress women.

“We should have freedom to wear what we want,” she says.

Ms Nyokabi dismisses the directive as defeatist, saying that instead of banning miniskirts, men should be disciplined and practise self-control.

“How different is this directive from those who blame a rape case on the dressing of the woman?” she asked, observing that even Dr Mutunga wears a stud. “We should have the freedom to wear what we want. We must appreciate that we are no longer in medieval times; this is a modern world.”

But Belinda Ongong’a, also a law student, says the LSK directive is in order to restore order in the profession.

“Lawyers should be dressed differently from the accused and other people appearing to listen to cases,” offers Ms Ongong’a.