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Laptop computers have entered England's somber courtrooms, but despite much derision and debate, judges and barristers have yet to discard the wigs they have worn for 300 years.

Most other professions abandoned them more than a century ago, but England's legal elite look set to carry on the tradition indefinitely.The handmade, curled horsehair wigs that first became fashionable in the 1680s have been a bone of contention in legal circles since 1868 when it was first suggested they should be discarded.

Supporters say wigs give authority to the judges and barristers who wear them, but opponents argue that, while they may have had a purpose in the 18th century, they are out of place in modern courtrooms and look ridiculous.

"You would think with so much wrong with the criminal justice system they would have more important things to worry about," said barrister Michael Mansfield after the last attempt to discard wigs failed.

"If they can't change the dress, it doesn't give you confidence that they can change anything else," he added.

Under Britain's two-tier legal system, barristers, who represent clients in the higher courts, wear wigs. Solicitors, who advise on legal and financial matters and appear in county and magistrate's courts, do not.

When solicitors lost their bid in April to wear wigs, Charles Elly, then president of the Law Society, a professional body, criticized the decision.

"The purpose of particular court dress is to provide a uniform which identifies the role of the wearer - not to continue petty distinctions between solicitors and barristers which are irrelevant to court users," he said.

"A sensible solution introducing modern court dress for all advocates should be found as quickly as possible," Elly suggested.

Polls of organizations, individuals and jurors showed many favored continuing the traditional court dress.

Most jurors questioned last year for a Royal Commission on Criminal Justice survey about attitudes to court dress said they felt more confident seeing wigs and gowns in court.

The popularity of wigs and gowns isn't limited to legal circles. A British judge nearly had to appear in court without them when his rock musician son borrowed them for a concert.

"If the case I was due to hear had not collapsed I would have been in the embarrassing position of not having any robes or wig," the 63-year-old judge said.

Like most British institutions, the legal profession is steeped in tradition. Judges and barristers wear short curled wigs for court appearances and longer "full-bottomed" wigs for ceremonial occasions such as the state opening of parliament.

Gowns, robes and bands and breeches, stockings and court shoes and buckles for high court and circuit judges and senior barristers are also among the requirements of court dress.

Ede and Ravenscroft, of London's Chancery Lane, has been making the horsehair and silk wigs since 1726 when Thomas Ravens-croft set up shop in the capital.

Today Kathleen Clifford, the chief wigmaker, and her small staff carry on the tradition producing a total of 1,000 wigs in five different designs each year.

Ravenscroft's grandson patented two of them - the barrister's wig and the full-bottomed wig - in the early 1800s. Some techniques, including the exact time the horsehair needs to be boiled to retain the curls, are closely guarded secrets.