Lowering the Bench

Zimbabwe’s Buyin’ Judge Wigs

Flag of Zimbabwe

There is some evidence that Zimbabwe may be a little short of well-trained judges. See “Public interviews expose judges’ shortcomings,” The Standard (Oct. 5, 2016). On that occasion, members of the country’s Judicial Service Commission, including two Supreme Court justices, were questioning High Court judges who were seeking promotion to Supreme status. This did not go well for a few of them.

“You seem to have been overturned on appeal quite a lot,” Justice Luke Malaba asked one, who had been reversed 43 percent of the time. Well, that depends on how their system operates. It would be remarkably good in the U.S., where the Supreme Court reverses about two-thirds of the time after granting review. But Justice Malaba said it was “a lot,” so maybe it is.

He did not, however, consider 12 to be “a lot,” at least when 12 was the number of decisions one judge had written during an entire year. Earlier that day they had accused a judge of being lazy for writing 69 decisions, and 12 is less than a fifth of that. The judge, though, said he is actually overworked. “I do not know the reason why I have not broken down up to now,” he told the commission, “because at times I have had to wake up from sleep and read huge documents.” Try that in your next evaluation and see how it goes.

The same guy also failed to score points when he admitted he did not know what “collegiality” meant, but said it didn’t really matter. “In these days of e-learning,” he pointed out, “one can easily Google to find out the meaning.” More concerning was the statement of another High Court judge who didn’t appear to know what stare decisis is, and since their system is also based on the English one, that is a valid concern. “I will not say much [about it] except that it is a doctrine you have to apply at the Supreme Court,” he told the panel, giving an answer that managed to be both entirely correct and completely wrong.

They may not all have extensive legal training, but there is one thing they do have: wigs.

The Zimbabwe government has come under fire after it emerged that it spent thousands of dollars on importing legal wigs from the UK for local judges, with critics lambasting the purchase as a colonial hang-up and a waste of money.

The Zimbabwe Independent newspaper reported that the country’s Judiciary Service Commission placed an order for 64 horse-hair wigs from Stanley Ley Legal Outfitters in London, at a cost of £1,850 ($2,428) per wig and totaling £118,400 ($155,000).

[L]awyers and rights campaigners have expressed anger at the purchase, arguing that the tradition of wearing expensive wigs represents a mismanagement of financial resources, and also fails to improve access to legal services for average Zimbabweans.

Hard to argue, I think, that wigs could improve “access to legal services,” but are they really a “mismanagement of financial resources”?

Yes. Yes they are. That was not a serious question.

Granted, $155K may not seem like a lot of money, but this is Zimbabwe we’re talking about. As you may recall, Zimbabwe’s economy has been a little shaky since—well, since always, and by “shaky” let me clarify that the annual rate of inflation there has been as high as 231 million percent. See ALERT: Saturday Is the Last Day to Cash in Your $100-Trillion Bills” (Apr. 28, 2016).

Have things gotten significantly better? Apparently not. While the statistics are all over the place, according to the World Bank the gross national income per capita in Zimbabwe for 2017 was $1,170, less than half what the government just paid for a single wig. Civil servants apparently make about $1200/month, but since the government can’t pay them it really doesn’t matter.

So no, Zimbabwe does not have $155,000 to spend on judge wigs. Marvelous though they may be.

Plus, even the British are phasing these things out, or at least that was the case the last time I checked on this [update: apparently no change since 2008]. For a while it seemed to be catching on. See International Body Declares No-Wig Zone in the Netherlands” (Apr. 20, 2011). If so, the trend has not yet reached Zimbabwe.

Not that this is the worst thing Europeans inflicted on Africans by any means, but the British really didn’t do them any favors in this department either.