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March 24 2011

The changing face of justice | Judith Resnik and Dennis Curtis

The visual vocabulary of courts is a transnational symbol of government

Consider this six-metre aluminium female form on a busy street corner in Melbourne, Australia. What possessed designers to put this image outside a building and assume that passersby would see it as marking a courthouse rather than puzzle about why someone hung a warrior princess as a shingle?

Of course, the Victoria county court is not alone. Outside Zambia's high court stands a similar statue of a woman, and her form is repeated in a brightly colored cloth made for the Zambia Women Judges Association.

The figure is also familiar in Europe and in North America – on top of London's Old Bailey; at the Peace Palace in the Hague; in what was the central courtroom for the European court of justice; and in the law courts of Vancouver, Canada.

The visual vocabulary of courts - rooted in Babylonian, Egyptian, Classical, and Renaissance iconography - provides a transnational symbol of government, and courts have become obligatory facets of good governance. Consider the image of two women: one with scales, sword and blindfold; the other, Prudence, regarding herself in a mirror. Justice was once regularly shown with Prudence as well as Fortitude and Temperance, the four cardinal virtues. We know this imagery of justice because we have been taught it. Rulers regularly link themselves to the virtue Justice as they seek legitimacy for the laws that they make and enforce.

Indeed, the deployment of didactic images is centuries old, as this 4000-year-old Mesopotamian drawing of a god with scales makes plain. Justice iconography has ancient origins, but the practices of justice have radically changed.

Judges were once subservient to the king; today we insist on their independence. The "rites" of the public spectacles of judgment became "rights" that oblige governments to provide open as well as impartial hearings to litigants.

Further, while Justice has long been portrayed as a woman, only during the last century have women and men of all colours become eligible to participate in all court roles – from litigant to lawyer to witness, juror and judge.

As democratic principles of equality changed court processes, conflicts emerged about whether and how to personify justice – what "she" should look like, and which symbols deserved places of honour.

The image of a justice in the US federal court for the Virgin Islands is a rare example of a dark-skinned portrayal. But the artist had instead proposed to use a Moco Jumbie, a mythical African figure of protection, which has made its way into carnivals. The local United States federal court committee charged with making decisions about the art rejected that proposal, on the grounds that it would be an "unsuitable as a symbol of justice", as well as one depicting a former slave emerging from his bondage.

Democracy has not only changed courts and prompted revision of the iconography, democratic principles also challenge courts.

Most governments do not adequately fund their justice systems to make good on promises of equal justice before the law. In Britain, the government has recently proposed closing 142 courts. In the United States, a new coalition seeks to "save our courts" to protect them from cutbacks.

Yet new policies in the US and the UK shift towards privatisation. Court rules press litigants to settle disputes or to use mediation. In some countries, courts enforce contracts insisting that consumers and employees waive their rights to litigate and use the private arbitration system chosen by manufacturers and employers.

No pictures – of justice or the participants – are available for display, as the decisions are all made out of sight.

This movement away from public adjudication is a problem for democracies. Adjudication contributes to democracies because it itself is a democratic process, which obliges disputants and judges to treat each other as equals, to provide information to each other and to offer public justifications for decisions.

The 220 images of our book map the relationship between courts and democracy and serve as reminders that courts, as the egalitarian institutions we know today, are relatively recent inventions. While venerable, they are at present also vulnerable.

Judith Resnik and Dennis Curtis are professors at Yale Law School. They are the co-authors of Representing Justice: Invention, Controversy, and Rights in City-States and Democratic Courtrooms, Yale Press, 2011.


guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds


March 08 2011

New exhibition offers insight into women's experience of prison

Girls Behind Bars showcases the work of women prisoners, and offers the public a different view of the criminal justice system

See pictures of some of the artworks here

Eve McDougall has come a long way since 1979 when, at 15 years old, she was serving a two-year sentence in an adult prison for breaking a window. "I was hungry. I saw bread in a bakery so I broke in. I can't tell you the mental damage it did being in an adult jail. I was terrified. When I think how things have turned out I can't believe it."

Now 52, McDougall, who describes herself as a "self-taught" artist, is to show her artwork in an exhibition in London. From 9 March McDougall's work will be on display along with that of other women ex-prisoners and prisoners in a gallery run by the mental health charity, Together. "I've been drawing and painting since I was a kid," she explains. "I've always found it so therapeutic."

The free exhibition, Girls Behind Bars: Female Experiences of Justice, which McDougall helped organise, will include works ranging from video installation to sculpture to painting, as well as short stories and poetry. McDougall believes it will offer an insight into the often harsh experiences of women prisoners.

"The hope is that it will give members of the public and people who work in the justice system a different perspective of women who have been in jail. It's about opening minds."

Claire Monger, who co-manages the gallery for Together, says the idea for the exhibition came to her after meeting McDougall. She was so impressed she asked her to be a consultant on the project, working with experienced curators, Ronee Hui and Louise McDonnell. "Through the art and words of female prisoners, offenders and ex-offenders the exhibition aims to explore their life experiences, and what justice has been like, from their points of view," Monger explains. "We hope it will raise further awareness of the problems that can be caused by sending vulnerable women to prison, and the benefits of alternatives."

Timed to coincide with the fourth anniversary of the Corston report – a landmark inquiry headed by Baroness Corston following the deaths of six women at Styal prison, which looked at the experiences of vulnerable women within the criminal justice system – the organisers hope the project will shed renewed light on the issue.

Women account for just 5% of the prison population but campaigners are concerned – borne out by Corston's original report – that most are incarcerated for non-violent offences, while around 70% have two or more mental health conditions. Women also account for more than half of all self-harm among the prison population. Advocates are also worried that pressure on funding could threaten many of the support initiatives established after Corston was published.

"I really hope we can have an impact," McDougall says. "I want there to be greater awareness of our experiences. They matter."

The exhibition runs until 10 June at the Together Our Space gallery, 12 Old Street, London, EC1V 9BE.


guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds


February 15 2011

Wormwood Scrubs photographed by Bettina von Kameke

Photographer Bettina von Kameke spent time inside Wormwood Scrubs prison, north-west London, observing inmates' daily rituals



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