Traditions of the courts

The Royal Coat of Arms

The Royal Coat of Arms came into being in 1399 under King Henry IV. It is used by the reigning monarch.

The Royal Arms appear in every courtroom in England and Wales (with the exception of the Magistrates’ court in the City of London), demonstrating that justice comes from the monarch, and a law court is part of the Royal Court (hence its name).

Judges and magistrates are therefore officially representatives of the Crown.

The presence of the Royal Arms explains why lawyers and court officials bow to the judge or magistrates’ bench when they enter the room. They aren’t bowing to the judge – they are bowing to the coat of arms, to show respect for the King’s justice.


Although they’re often seen in cartoons and TV programmes and mentioned in almost everything else involving judges, the one place you won’t see a gavel is an English or Welsh courtroom – they are not used there and have never been used in the Criminal Courts.

The black cap

The black cap – based on court headgear in Tudor times – was traditionally put on by judges passing sentence of death.

Since the permanent abolition of capital punishment in 1969, there has been no need for the cap to be worn. High Court Judges still carry the black cap, but only on an occasion where they are wearing full ceremonial dress.

Red ribbons

Red or ‘pink’ tape was once used to tie up official papers – indeed, that’s where the term ‘red tape’ to describe excessive bureaucracy comes from. The tape is still used by the legal profession for briefs (the documents outlining a case) from private citizens. White tape is used for briefs from the Crown.


Judges, magistrates and tribunal members take two oaths when they are sworn in. The first is the oath of allegiance to the reigning monarch, and the second the judicial oath; these are collectively referred to as the judicial oath.

Witnesses giving evidence in court also take an oath, which can be religious (different versions exist for members of different faiths) or secular – where the witness simply affirms that they will tell the truth.

Oaths were used at least as far back as Anglo-Saxon and Roman times.