Oxford students vote to ban gowns marking out top law students at debates

Oxford students have voted to ban special gowns that mark out cleverest students from “commoners” at law debates because they create “unconscious bias” among examiners.

The university’s student union voted to lobby the university to bar top law students from wearing “scholars’ gowns” because they cause unfairness when they are being examined at the traditional moot debates. 

The special gowns are reserved for scholarship students or those who have done particularly well in their exams. 

They are also worn in formal exams but supporters of the change argued that this did not cause the same problem as markers could not see what the student had been wearing when judging their work. 

According to student newspaper Cherwell, the motion proposed by Thomas Howard, a second year Law student at Magdalen College, said that “judges, sometimes from leading law firms and chambers, may have unconscious bias based on the gowns worn.”

Mr Howard told a meeting of the students’ union that judges’ preconceptions could be “damaging for those in a commoners’ and can be for the scholars too since the judge may expect more of them.” 

The moots are simulated court hearings which give students the chance to practise their legal arguments and public speaking skills. 

The programme is compulsory for first-year law students. Other moots also take place in competition with other colleges or universities. Some are judged by corporate lawyers or carry a financial reward. 

Not all students supported the vote, however. One commented that the change was “silly”. 

Writing on Cherwell’s Facebook page, law student Shane Finn said: “As someone proud of his commoner’s gown in moot courts, I was never once bothered by those wearing scholar’s gowns. In fact, it just makes winning a moot even more satisfying!”

Earlier this year students called for an overall ban on the gowns, worn by students who are predicted to attain top grades in their subject, because they made others feel “inferior”.

Students said watching others wearing the gowns to exams was “disheartening” and “stressful”.

But a consultation revealed that 63 per cent of students were in favour of retaining the existing system. 

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