After years of campaigning, Hong Kong barristers from religious minorities have won the right to wear headgear associated with their faith instead of traditional horsehair wigs in court.

The amended rule, approved by the council of the Hong Kong Bar Association last week, allows Jewish, Muslim and Sikh barristers to wear such head coverings without prior approval from the court.

barrister hong kong high court lawyers
Photo: HK DOJ.

Such headwear must be of “unemphatic colour,” and “must not cover the face as a general rule,” according to the amendment.

Barrister Azan Marwah, who raised the issue with then-Chief Justice Geoffrey Ma in 2015, told HKFP he decided to fight for the change after his friend, Sikh barrister Harprabdeep Singh, told him that he was not sure whether to wear a wig in court.

“I am very happy that the Bar has shown that they understand equality isn’t about paying lip service to ideas; it’s about changing how you do things to include people who are historically excluded,” said Marwah.

“It’s taken a long time to educate people about the problem, show them that there is nothing to fear, and that minorities can be incorporated with some effort.”

According to Marwah, there was only one previous occasion when an exemption to wigs had been granted – in 1976, for barrister Nahar Singh.

Harprabdeep Singh was granted a specific exemption allowing him to wear his turban in court after writing to Ma. The then-chief justice told him that the judiciary would not object to his application as long as the Bar Association had no problem with it.

“Before 2015, there were no turbaned barristers, so that issue had not really cropped up,” said Singh. “Nor were there any ladies with burkas or hijabs, or Jewish individuals wearing kippahs [skullcaps] who wish to be exempted.”

After winning an exemption for himself, Singh said several people approached him and Marwah about the issue, which promoted them to seek a general exemption.

Azan Marwah
Azan Marwah. Photo: Gilt Chambers.

Marwah, who was elected to the Bar Council in January, wrote to its chairperson Paul Harris, asking it to consider “immediate and specific steps to improve access to the Bar for minority religious and ethnic communities.”

The barrister said that while previous councils and fellow barristers had been supportive of the change, the increased representation and diversity in the Bar Council, in terms of people’s perspectives and backgrounds, was key to their success.

“The Bar Council did not have on it any Sikh lawyers, and to my knowledge there weren’t any Muslim lawyers, so the issue is more that there was no one pushing for the change,” said Marwah. “When the issue is debated, it helps if somebody is there who knows about it and who can answer questions.”

“The catalyst for the change this year was the election of Paul Harris SC. He immediately got behind this change and championed it with the Chief Justice.”

Harris told HKFP that he “of course support this change, which is quite important to the individuals it directly concerns.”

Delayed by Covid-19

Singh said the amendment would have been approved more quickly had it not been the Covid-19 pandemic.

Harprabdeep Singh
Harprabdeep Singh. Photo: ALSC Chambers.

“It would have been done possibly in early 2020 had Covid not happened. So I think because Covid happened, essentially all meetings were suspended…the progress on the reports got sidelined,” said Singh. “In fairness, this is a new thing, and so new things require a lot more discussion.”

The barrister said the amendment to the rules was “a great move to show the cosmopolitan nature of the Bar.”

“It’s good to feel noticed, it’s good to be appreciated, it’s good to be accepted.”

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Candice is a reporter at Hong Kong Free Press. She previously worked as a researcher at a local think tank. She has a BSocSc in Politics and International Relations from the University of Manchester and a MSc in International Political Economy from London School of Economics.