There have been many words written about Philip Opas, who died on August 25 aged 91. Opas, a Victorian lawyer, was perhaps best known for his valiant defence of Ronald Ryan, the last man hanged in Australia in 1967. In addition to being a fine court advocate, he was also a corporate lawyer, town planning guru, ran local government and was a seasoned sportsman and sports administrator.

But Opas is also a hero for another reason. He vehemently opposed the wearing of wigs by lawyers. At the ripe old age of 89 Opas said wigs were simply “dandruff bags” which should be consigned to the rubbish bin “alongside the thumbscrew and the rack”.

Writing in the arch conservative, undergraduate style trade mag, the Victorian Bar News, in its Spring 2004 edition, Opas made this telling observation:

Wigs are meant to be a substitute for hair not an addition to it. Nothing looks more ridiculous than to see shoulder-length hair protruding below the wig, particularly when it may be any colour of the rainbow. To call it tradition is insupportable. Maybe enough members of the Bar still enjoy strutting about looking like left-overs from the last Gilbert and Sullivan season.

Unfortunately he was right about this latter observation.

Earlier this year I had an online discussion with a number of barristers about the issue of wigs and was shocked to find that two of those who responded and who would call themselves left of centre political progressives, were the most vehement supporters of ‘dandruff bags.’

One, a seasoned political operator in the Labor Party, compared donning a wig was like some form of wacky out of body experience.

“I have found robing and putting on a wig (particularly in the early days when I did criminal trials) a transformative act,” this lawyer said.

The other, an ardent young environmental campaigner, justified the absurdity of wigs with this specious claim that lawyers: “should be self-consciously anachronistic, or we will give in the modern world, in which every other profession has given up its independence and sold itself along with everyone else.”

Unfortunately, while wigs are on the way out in some courts, Opas’ plea for their total abolition is still some years off, and he would no doubt have shaken his head in despair to read ridiculous justifications, like those above, from lawyers who are still attached to looking like extras from a film set of a remake of the Scarlet Pimpernel.

Peter Fray

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