Judicial Images

This post was contributed by Professor Leslie J Moran, of Birkbeck’s School of Law.

1st October 2009, the opening day of the new Supreme Court of the United Kingdom.  Judges of the Supreme Court dressed in their gilded ceremonial robes of office negotiate their way through a group of pedestrians as they process from the Court to Westminster Abbey to attend the Judges Service to celebrate the opening of the new legal year. © Leslie J Moran 2014.

1st October 2009, the opening day of the new Supreme Court of the United Kingdom. Judges of the Supreme Court dressed in their gilded ceremonial robes of office negotiate their way through a group of pedestrians as they process from the Court to Westminster Abbey to attend the Judges Service to celebrate the opening of the new legal year. © Leslie J Moran 2014.

How about drawing me a picture of a judge? Use your mind’s eye; make a mental picture. What is in your picture? What is the judge’s pose? How is the judge dressed? Are there any props? If so what are they? Now take a moment to reflect. What is being represented? If you showed the picture to a friend, colleague or fellow commuter and asked, ‘What does this represent?’ what would be the reply? What does your picture say about the qualities of a good judge? Or maybe you have produced a picture that portrays some of the common criticism of judges: ‘pale, male and stale’, remote, stuffy, out of touch, and out of date. Where did you get the ideas and images from? How accurate are they? I hope this exercise has given you a little food for thought.

It is an exercise that is intended to draw you into the heart of a new research initiative at Birkbeck entitled Judicial Images; image making, management and consumption. Funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, the goal is to build a network of people who work in the media and culture industries, the judges and their media advisors who commission and manage them, together with scholars from a variety of disciplines, including art history, film and television studies, sociology and cultural studies, from the UK and beyond to study judicial images. It is a pioneering initiative that builds on my research into the judiciary. If the study of pictures sounds distinctly out of place when it comes to research on the judiciary the message of this initiative is, it’s time to think again.

The network will examine the power of visual images to communicate ideas about judges and the justice system past, present and future. The power of pictures is not a recent discovery here. Sculptures and painted portraits of judges have been produced and displayed since at least the 16th century. In the Victorian era small photographic portraits of judges were collected and arranged in albums with other celebrity figures of the day. Today it’s all about the moving image; film and television portraits in documentaries, news reports and courtroom dramas such as G.F. Newman’s highly acclaimed Judge John Deed.

This is a very timely initiative. As of October 2013, the English courts opened their doors to the television cameras. They are currently confined to the Court of Appeal. ‘Open justice’ and ‘public education’ jockey for position as arguments justifying calls for TV cameras in criminal trial courts. But TV is already awash with news stories and fictional accounts – courtroom dramas, that touch on the work of judges. But fictions are often cast as second best. Reality is the thing. The specter of declining standards of journalism and tabloid television and press reports that value sensationalism over accuracy haunts debates about better public access to news of what goes on in courts. Concerns continue to be expressed about the impact of media on popular misconceptions about the way courts work and the role of the judge. Pictures of judges dressed in gilded or scarlet robes wearing silk stockings, court shoes and 18th-century full-bottomed wigs regularly accompany news reports critical of judicial decisions, especially so called ‘lenient’ sentences. The worry is that they not only misrepresent today’s judges but that they feed and breed dissatisfaction with, and loss of confidence in, the judiciary.

But there has been little research exploring how these images are commissioned and made or how they are used. The network is designed to change that. Three workshops (the first in November 2014) will facilitate new encounters, open up new conversations, and expose participants to new perspectives. The workshops provide a unique opportunity for us to explore the complex processes that go into judicial image-making and image management. These events will be designed to encourage critical reflection about current images. What messages are being produced? What gets left out? How may these images be changed, improved? What can be done to enhance popular perceptions and understandings about the justice system and the role of the judge?

A dedicated website will support the whole project. In addition to providing information about the project events the website will also offer a bibliography of key sources for interested members of the public, policy makers, and budding researchers. It will also provide new educational resources.

The website also hosts an exhibition. This will be made up of a variety of pictures of judges, some of which I have made during the course of my judicial research (See image above). Others will be from important collections such as the National Portrait Gallery. We also hope to inspire people to make pictures, for example by using Instagram.

So don’t delay. Add the finishing touches to your picture. If it’s still a mental one, get out the paper and make a hard copy. If it’s already on paper turn it into a pdf or photograph it and send it in. My contact details are below.  A caption or accompanying commentary is optional. I can’t guarantee that it will make the exhibition. I’ll have to consult with my fellow researcher, Professor Linda Mulcahy once a colleague in the Law School at Birkbeck, now in the Department of Law at the London School of Economics. But I will do my best.

What I can guarantee is that the exercise will have made you think about one of society’s most important institutions. It will also have made you think about the importance of visual media in shaping your understanding of the judiciary.

Leslie J Moran is a Professor in the Law School at Birkbeck. You can contact him for more information about the project or to send your pictures via his email address: l.moran@bbk.ac.uk. Follow the Judicial Images project on Twitter.

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