Oxford SU passed a motion to lobby for a ban on the wearing of scholars’ gowns in Law Faculty moots, branding the practice “damaging”, by creating an “unconscious bias” among examiners.
The vote was passed with 38 votes in favour, with only three votes in opposition and two abstentions.
A moot is a mock law case that Law students are required to take part in to complete their degree.
The motion has mandated the Oxford SU vice president for Access and Academic Affairs to petition the Law Faculty to change their policy on wearing gowns in moots.
Many of these moots are judged by partners at corporate firms and a good performance may have the reward of a fast-tracked job application. Several moots also carry financial rewards.
The motion was proposed by Thomas Howard, a second year Law student at Magdalen College. According to the motion, “judges, sometimes from leading law firms and chambers, may have unconscious bias based on the gowns worn.”
In the meeting, Howard argued that it seemed unfair to differentiate between participants of a moot, as there is no direct correlation between exam performance and oral argumentative ability.
Speaking about the unconscious bias, Howard said: “This is damaging for those in a commoners’ and can be for the scholars too since the judge may expect more of them.”
Howard also suggested that the conflation of a scholars’ gown and academic ability were not necessarily accurate as “scholars’ gowns are not solely down to academic achievement” but sometimes for choral and other musical scholarships. He added: “The motion isn’t radical, it just brings moots into line with other exam regulations.”
This motion follows changes in regulations for viva examinations last year to make everyone wear commoners’ gowns. This move was to reduce the risk of prejudice in oral examinations.
Howard questioned whether, given that the financial reward and the lucrative job offers are at stake, it is right that the Faculty continue to enforce a hierarchical gown system that exists a “no other university”.
There was no opposition speech in response to the motion. A question was raised by a student from Merton about the similarity of the motion to one raised last term which called for the outright banning of scholars’ gowns pending consultation.
In response, Howard defended the motion in terms of its unique context and the fact that the views of students were not directly translatable from the consultation results.
Catherine Canning, Oxford SU vice president for Access and Academic Affairs, told Cherwell: “As with viva examinations, the fact that you are judged in person in moots means that the gown worn may have more significance or lead to unconscious bias.
“This issue should be distinguished from scholars’ gowns in written exams where examiners do not see the candidate, where student council in 1st week voted to keep them, which also reflected the views of students in the all student consultation in TT17.”
Oxford SU held a student-wide consultation about whether to abolish scholars’ gowns last term. Those who proposed this change criticised scholars’ gowns for creating “an academically hierarchical environment.”
The consultation last term revealed that 63% of students were in favour of keeping the current scholars’ gown system.
Speaking to Cherwell about the motion, Peter Saville, president of the Oxford Bar Society, said: “At the Bar there are advocates whose status is shown by their gowns.
“‘Silks’ who wear a gown to distinguish years of experience and their ability are a reality of practice.
“To artificially level the playing field when there are scholars who have been selected on the basis of academic ability makes moots less reflective of a competitive, adversarial court system.”
One second year Law student, Haroon Zaman, told Cherwell: “It is a divisive issue because it pits tradition of Oxford against changing winds, which seems to be a perpetual fixture on campus nowadays.”
Another Law student from Pembroke said: “This seems only a natural extension of the decision to ban scholars’ gowns in viva examinations.
“Whilst there is less at stake (normally a trophy rather than a degree classifi cation), we often cannot help but make subconscious decisions on the intelligence of someone wearing a scholars’ gown as opposed to a commoners’ gown.”
The Faculty of Law declined to comment at this time.