The Supreme Court welcomes and informs the public, but how does an artist interpret the coded theatre of the hearings?
Isobel William’s new exhibition of drawings, sketched from the public seats of the Supreme Court with the court’s permission, and other locations, offers an unusual perspective on the workings of open justice.
The exhibition includes her impressions of cases concerning image rights, the extent of the Terrorism Act and the Naked Rambler, for example.
Isobel’s work is being displayed at Senate House in June and July. The exhibition is free to the public and can be found on the 2nd floor.
The exhibition is part of the public engagement programme at the Institute for Advanced Legal Studies exploring and promoting the ‘humanity of law’, that is exploring law’s place in the arts and humanities, and role in shaping society and culture. The Information Law and Policy Centre has been involved in a number of IALS events on this theme exploring the work of judges and barristers.
Last week I was fortunate to attend a private view of Isobel Williams’ drawings from the UK Supreme Court, which are currently on display at Pinsent Masons LLP, near Liverpool Street. Followers of Williams’ work will know that she shares an alternative view from court. She does not offer the type of court sketches we’re used to, the sort drawn from memory and for the purposes of news reporting.
Instead she captures the non newsworthy detail: an usher, a judge typing (pen in mouth), the portraits on display. The colours and style are unusual too. Her current exhibition includes outlines of barristers, the judges visible through their translucent figures. She reflects and describes on her blog, poetically:
People shifting on the leather-upholstered public benches make them creak like a sailing ship. A girl in front of me has long swishy hair. My pen and brush swish on the textured paper, in her ear. She doesn’t know she is hearing the rhythm of her hair being drawn … Around the court, the Apple logo comes over loud and clear (5 November 2014)
Her approach has a relevance to the study of information law and policy, and a sub-theme of access to courts and courts communication: in ordinary courts sketches from within the courtroom are not permitted; there is a blanket ban, just as there is for taking photos or filming. The Supreme Court is different: there is no specific legislation that prohibits this activity, and with the court’s special permission Williams occasionally draws, from the public seats and unobtrusively. In turn, she has kindly given permission for me to share some of the images from her exhibition. Below the gallery, she offers further reflections on her work:
Isobel Williams: Questions I am asked about the Supreme Court include:
Where is it?(Ask cabbies for the Middlesex Guildhall if you’re in a hurry.)
What was the jury like?(There is none.)
Can the public attend hearings?(Yes)
Do you have to a) book or b) queue to get into hearings?(a) No, b) not in my experience – it’s for spotters and purists, not for the tricoteuses who frequent the Old Bailey for the murder.)
Sometimes, when I tell barristers that I hang around the SC a bit, they make a sour face. This came as no surprise to my niece, a barrister. ‘It’s about fear and envy,’ she said.
So why do I occasionally haunt the public seats, a Miss Flite with drawing materials, trying to be as small, unobtrusive and noiseless as possible, writing a stream-of-consciousness blog to accompany my illustrations of the passing scene? (In another context, someone said of me: ‘She sits there like a little mouse, and gets us.’)
I have a history of attaching myself to locations – under the A40, the Occupy protest camps, Crisis at Christmas, band rehearsals. I observe from a position of detachment in a place where drawing is not the point.
The court is also a building with a history and an art collection. It was built as art nouveau gothic; it accumulated awkward interior growths over time; the conversion to the Supreme Court restored daylight and produced courtrooms with everyone on the same level (read Hugh Feilden’s masterly account of that process in The Supreme Court of the United Kingdom: History, Art, Architecture, edited by Chris Miele, a beautiful illustrated book available from the court).
So what do you see from the public seats?I’d say that’s down to you. Every response will be different. Some of the tourists who wander in are clearly stricken by a primitive fear, as are some of the lawyers. I see suits, a few bespoke (they fit properly, with a kind of fluidity), most not (the padding tries to stay put when the wearer moves). I see nervous hands clenching and unclenching behind a QC’s back, out of sight of the bench. The exposure can look very lonely. I see paintings and human beings.
The Supreme Court takes its aim of open justice very seriously. It welcomes and educates the public. We are all invited to examine what goes on in our own way. I am not a court artist. I am not a lawyer. But I am a tax-payer (ergo, subsidising the court) who occasionally spends time with adults of working age who are not tax-payers, and I don’t mean non-doms. We are all consumers of the legal system even if we are not consumed by it. I take a tangential look at something which is open to everybody.
I censor myself in what I say, in what I draw, and in how I draw it. It’s a court. Is scandalising the court still an offence? I don’t want to learn the hard way.
Isobel Williams’ exhibition of Supreme Court drawings is currently at Pinsent Masons LLP, 30 Crown Place, Earl St, London EC2A 4ES, office hours Mon-Fri. She can be found on Twitter: @otium_catulle and blogs at http://www.isobelwilliams.org.uk. A guide to the exhibition is available here [PDF]. All images copyright of Isobel Williams.
In Ian McEwan’s The Children Actpublished this year, the author deftly weaves together the personal and professional lives of a High Court Judge in the family division, the fictional Fiona Maye.
His tale is rooted in the reality of law and judging: the judgments of his friend the former Court of Appeal judge Sir Alan Ward, who, McEwan describes in the Guardian, once went to a football match with a young boy who had previously been the subject of a court hearing following his refusal (supported by his parents) of a lifesaving blood transfusion.
This football match anecdote, which exposes the human side of the judge, was one of several recounted by Professor Erika Rackley, Birmingham Law School, at Wednesday’s event at the UK Supreme Court, in her contribution to the evening’s theme: ‘The Humanity of Judging‘.
The event was part of the first national festival of the humanities, the Being Human Festival, led by the School of Advanced Study, University of London, in partnership with the Arts & Humanities Research Council and the British Academy.
We approached the UK Supreme Court, whose communications director, Ben Wilson, responded enthusiastically and helped us plan an event which would bring together legal humanities and social research with a public audience.
The court already offers guided tours of the court for a small fee (details here) but this event offered a free tour, followed by a discussion chaired by Lord Carnwath, Justice of the UK Supreme Court and chair of the Advisory Council of the IALS.
The event took place on Wednesday evening (19 November) and gave attendees an insight into the origin and history of the court, which opened in 2009 in the renovated Middlesex Guildhall. The audience then gathered in Courtroom One to hear from our panel of experts.
Although the purpose of the event was to bring the public in touch with academic research, it would have seemed odd not to hear from a judge. So the discussion began, with a lively and engaging presentation by a deputy High Court judge from an unusual professional background: as a solicitor, not a barrister.
Alexandra Marks drew from her personal perspective as a commercial lawyer who has made the transition to various judicial roles (in the Crown Court, County Court and High Court), as well as her two Commissioner roles (as Judicial Appointments Commissioner and Criminal Cases Review Commissioner), and long experience as a charitable trustee of organisations such as Amnesty International, JUSTICE and Prisoners Education Trust. In particular, Marks raised the issue of emotion and the ways in which judges engaged with their cases:
Refreshing honesty of Deputy High Court Judge Alexandra Marks on emotional work of judging #beinghuman14
We then heard from Dr Lawrence McNamara, deputy director and senior research fellow at the Bingham Centre for the Rule of Law; as part of a research project at the University of Reading from 2009-13 he interviewed a number of judges who had presided over terrorism trials (it was the first time that British judges had participated in such research).
McNamara discussed first his own encounters with judgments and judges in Australia, noting that that humanity of judging is accompanied by the enormity of judging. Judges make decisions about the law and its consequences that will have profound effects on the lives of individuals and communities. At the same time, he said, we want our judges to be both human and engaged, yet fair and impartial.
He then turned to his encounters with judges in the terrorism interviews in the UK. The judges were “reassuringly ordinary”, he said – and they provided a very good cup of tea! Their humanity was present in so many ways that do not always appear in judgments or in court, though that is part of the institutional nature of what they do. He emphasised the difficult position of judges in this acutely sensitive area of law, and in particular, that while they followed media coverage, their overriding concern was to do justice. It was, he said, a humanity deeply imbued with responsibility.
Next we enjoyed a series of judicial portraits presented by Professor Leslie Moran, School of Law Birkbeck, who is currently principal investigator on an Arts and Humanities Research Council funded network initiative, the Judicial Images Network. His images (PDF) showed the various ways in which Lord Phillips, the former and first President of The Supreme Court and former Lord Chief Justice, had been portrayed in public settings.
From 2007-8, the judiciary website showed an image of Lord Phillips with his young grandson, an unusual way for a judge to be shown. The judge had told Moran that “…we were each invited to provide a photograph for the website. So I thought I would choose a photograph that would show me as an ordinary person and not one of someone wearing a wig”.
Audience members could not have failed to notice the ethnicity, age and gender similarities between 11 of 12 Supreme Court justices as well, and diversity in judging was then discussed by Professor Erika Rackley, Birmingham Law School. She began by describing the perceived ‘other-worldliness’ of judges. She described how Lady Hale has referred to Henry Cecil’s 1958 novel Sober as a Judge. In it the newly appointed (fictional) Mr Justice Thursby remarks,
‘Most of the public think of us [judges] as awe-inspiring figures, completely removed from ordinary everyday affairs. It must feel very like contempt of Court to think of a judge indulging in the ordinary daily routine of life – to visualize the terrible red-robed figure getting into a bath – quite naked’.
But, Rackley said, on the evidence presented at our discussion and elsewhere, we’re more likely to respond in the manner of Mr Justice Thursby’s wife, Ann, who said:
‘Darling, you won’t take yourself too seriously, will you? I think that most people realize that there is a human being under all that clutter’.
In Rackley’s view, once we accept that judges are human and – which is perhaps more controversial – that this has an impact on their judgments, it matters who the judge is: “It matters that the judiciary as a whole – and the UK Supreme Court in particular – is representative of the society they serve”.
The panellists then took a few questions, and we briefly touched on judicial appointments, the availability of judicial materials (such as sentencing remarks) and judicial values, among other aspects of the humanity of judging. There was, of course, much more we could have carried on discussing …
We hope to make video from the event, which was live-streamed on the Supreme Court website, available on the court’s YouTube channel in due course.
Update: the video is now available to watch below:
Judith Townend is Director, Centre for Law and Information Policy at the Institute of Advanced Legal Studies and organised, in collaboration with Ben Wilson, Director of Communications of the UK Supreme Court, the ‘Humanity of Judging’ event.