Don’t have a cow, man: Seeking elasticity in court gowning directives

  • February 24, 2016
  • Kim Covert

Many say pregnancy is a gift. And so it is. A big gift that becomes more expensive and awkward to wrap the bigger it gets.

Thus the maternity-wear conundrum – how much can or should you shell out for clothes that you might wear for three months and then never need again? It’s even more problematic when your job requires a specialized uniform that is not readily or inexpensively available in maternity sizes.

Which brings us to the dilemma faced by a female litigator whose fitted court gown and waistcoat are unwelcoming of her baby bump.

According to a resolution brought forward by the CBA’s Women Lawyers Forum, and passed by Council at the MidWinter meeting in Ottawa, “judges and court staff may take a strict view of required court attire, and may react negatively to any unauthorized variation of the gowning requirements.”

WLF co-chair Heidi Schedler says pregnant litigators have done everything from splitting the back seam of a waistcoat (which gets circulated to others when they need it), to wearing a black cardigan in place of the waistcoat, or skipping the waistcoat altogether.

“Basically the theme that I take away is that women are trying hard to respect the rules surrounding gowning, but also trying to be creative with a solution, that will not require them to order a set of gowns for maternity,” says Schedler.

Judicial reactions to their creativity run the gamut “from enthusiasm and encouragement to disdain and frustration,” she adds.

Neither Schedler nor her co-chair, Elaine Keenan Bengts, wanted to name names of either lawyers who have been censured or of the judges making the complaints. They also didn’t have statistics on how often it happens, but say that’s not the point.

“We’ve heard a number of stories from across the country” about judges’ reactions to court attire modified in the family way, says Keenan Bengts. “It may not be something that happens every day, but it is happening with a degree of regularity. … (E)ven one woman being told in open court that her attire is inappropriate is too many.”

For that reason, per the resolution, the CBA will urge all Canadian courts to:

  • Adopt practice directives or civil procedure rules that permit counsel to depart from strict gowning requirements to the extent necessary when pregnant;
  • Provide a dignified and respectful way for counsel to inform the court that her attire has been modified as authorized by the practice directive or rules, such as indicating “modified attire” on the counsel slip when signing in before court begins.

Lucy McSweeney noted that the resolution’s impact will be wider than just on pregnant litigators – anyone who for reasons of size or disability has problems being gowned as required for court will benefit from a standard for variations.

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