Let’s break free from the cultural imperialism of US legal dramas and stop imagining that English judges use gavels

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Respected broadsheet follows ITV into the trap of thinking British judges bang away like their Yankee counterparts


Lawyers and judges were reeling this week at the most shocking development to hit the legal profession since a television producer was appointed as Lord Chancellor — gavels have been introduced to English courtrooms.

Well, at least according to the Daily Telegraph they have.

Britain’s biggest selling broadsheet picked up on the dramatic tale of barrister Ian West, who recently had a fine for being in contempt of court overturned, following a verbal dust up with a judge at Durham Crown Court.

In its report, the Telegraph painted a vivid picture of the slanging match between criminal law specialist West and Judge Peter Kelson QC. But social media commentators quickly began to speculate on whether the reporter was actually in the courtroom, owing to this line:

“…the judge barked at him to sit down six times, banging his gavel on the bench as he did so”.


Exciting stuff — apart from the fact that … English judges (and indeed judges across the UK) don’t use gavels.

So even Daily Telegraph hacks appear to have been infected by the cultural imperialism of countless US television dramas depicting tough-talking judges smacking a gavel on the bench like demented DIYers.

Several years ago, highly respected legal journalist and commentator Marcel Berlins bemoaned the pervasive nature of this misconception. Writing in The Guardian in 2009, Berlins lambasted the BBC for incorporating repeated bench gavelling in the production of “Garrow’s Law”.

More recently, ITV has got in on the act. The station has promoted Britain’s own version of “Judge Judy” with scenes of barrister Rob Rinder (who has been elevated to the bench for the series) wielding a gavel with gusto.


Perhaps they just do things differently in the wild world of Durham Crown Court. Updates from local advocates gratefully received.



Hey Jude Judy?



Thanks, we have corrected.

But have you never heard of the B-side to that famous Beatles classic?


Not Amused

This is a wider point about journalism. We live in a society were adults are not educated by the state. So their on-going education can only be provided by the media. As the media is increasingly full of lies and misinformation, it is natural and understandable that the public are largely misinformed. Given that people then vote on the basis of those misinformed views, we have a vicious circle whereby our politicians are elected on fundamentally flawed mandates.

The *only* thing that can break this circle are our journalists. But being truthful and educating the public do not (so I am told) sell papers. So the problem persists.

To counter the dangers in a democratic system of a misinformed mob majority tyrannising a minority we have the rise of an overly interventionist judiciary. This is just a sticking plaster upon a very deep wound. We need to culturally embrace the need for on-going adult education. We need to challenge and cast down any force in our society which argues for ignorance and against learning. We need to do this now and quickly.


A barrister

I don’t care about TV dramas, but I do care about the quality of journalism in our supposedly quality broadsheets. It’s instructive to think about how such a mistake could be made. It seems very unlikely that the Telegraph journalist was told by a witness that the judge banged his gavel (given the complete absence of any gavel). The only plausible explanation for the mistake is that the journalist just made it up. It felt right (to the journalist), so they just added it in, knowing that they had no basis for it but thinking that it probably happened.

Shouldn’t that be some kind of disciplinary offence for a serious journalist? The fact that it seems to treated as a simple mistake that is corrected, so all is good, is worrying. It suggests a culture in which such “mistakes” are routinely made. In other words, you can’t trust a thing the Telegraph writes.

Rather depressing.


Not Amused

You can’t trust a thing they write, but conversely if we regulate them (like I’m regulated, like Judges are regulated and errr.. like MPs are regulated) then we would be destroying their freedom to lie.


P Savage

Another example of the press making things up. How often does this happen in stories that we “know” are wrong. Why do we believe them when they report on events when we haven’t got direct knowledge?



Back in the day, most of the broadsheets (particularly The Times) had a handful of reporters who were either legally qualified or very experienced in covering the courts as a source of news. Sub-editors were also less inclined to slavishly follow house styles that reworked, for example, Court of Appeal to appeal court.

Sadly, most of the papers lost that talent long ago and never bothered to replace it, which is a shame given how often “legal” news hits the mainstream press.


Daniel Olive

My father was a sub for about 20 years, and I can’t believe he would ever have turned Court of Appeal into appeal court. In fact, I can well imagine him giving that as an example of a reported screwing up and him fixing it.



Or reporter, even. *Looks up definition of ironic in dictionary*



It was also quite irritating to see that the Guardian got rid of the Guardian Law editor a couple of years ago just as it started to establish itself as a much needed alternative to the dilapidated, paywalled coverage in The Times.



I think the issue is that Kelson banged on the bench a number of times (there’s mention of it in the transcript) – one presumes with his hand (frankly could have been with his another body part given the nature of this particular row!) and someone at telegraph got a little confused on that detail. I do think that having them on Garrow was silly and on Rinder ridiculous (though possibly the least ridiculous thing about the Rinder show!)


D Godfrey

@Not Amused,
Your initial comment on this story was one of the best comments I’ve read on this website for a long time.


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