Bang to rites: everything you ever wanted to know about gavels but were afraid to ask

‘Sharp is the moment in which the head of the gavel strikes against the wooden surface and generates the sound of division between past and future…’

So declares Lorenzo Benedetti in his preface to Diego Tonus’s fascinating, eccentric and hilariously comprehensive study of gavels, The Presidents’ Hammers. Explaining their use as theatrical demonstration of finality, Benedetti states that: ‘The gesture becomes the metaphor for the active decisional moment…’

‘The little generator of concentric circles [of sound] rippling through the space after the hit creates an architecture of law that manifests itself around the acoustic and judicial radius.’


As a stock image of the law the gavel is ubiquitous, yet in most English-speaking jurisdictions it has never been used by judges in court. The iconic desk-hammer is a symbol of American cultural imperialism, perhaps. Auctioneers may use them, but justice is not for sale here. Nor are they used in other common law jurisdictions around the world.

Yet the image is everywhere. It is one of the three most popular icons of the law, along with the scales (of justice), on their own or held in one hand by the godlike figure of Lady Justice herself, while her other arm holds a sword. (That sword represents enforcement, perhaps, after the scales have assessed compliance.) Judges in court do not use a set of scales, nor (one hopes) do they wield a sword. These things are purely symbolic.

But the gavel is actually in use, as a tool of case management, in America. Judges have them up on the bench (ie their desktop) and whack those little wooden hammers to get attention. You see them do it in films and on the TV, so it must be true. More than that, it must be universal, the thinking goes. So, for every tired and unimaginative picture researcher at the end of the day, looking for an image to illustrate a legal news story or article, the gavel is usually the one that gets their mouse-click.

A symbol of ignorance

Some of us are fighting back. A Twitter account under the name of Inappropriate Gavels continually names and shames the offenders. The account is run by Callum May, who is actually a religious affairs correspondent, but who blogs and tweets as @igavels and in that capacity contributes an essay in this book. Having complained about misuse of the gavel image by many who should know better, including the UK Parliament website, the Crown Prosecution Service, numerous law firms, legal publishers and even retailers of legal garb such as wigs and gowns, he explains that:

‘The concern about gavels displayed in this article is not directed at gavels at all. In fact, it is an attempt to make a serious point about the lack of knowledge of the legal system among people in the United Kingdom.’

In that sense, if the gavel is symbolic of anything in non-American common law jurisdictions, it is a symbol of legal ignorance.

As testimony to the ‘Absence of Gavels from UK Courtrooms’, the book also features a series of drawings made by Isobel Williams at the UK Supreme Court during the Article 50 ‘Brexit’ appeal (known to us lawyers as R (Miller) v Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union  [2017] UKSC 5; [2018] AC 61). Fans of her drawing style will know that Williams has also written and illustrated a charming Guide for Bears in which two of the teddy-bears you can buy in the Supreme Court’s giftshop come alive after hours and get up to mischief behind the scenes. Although they do explain that ‘there is no gavel in the British justice system’, one can’t help feeling those cheeky bears could have taken the opportunity to smuggle one into the court just for fun.

A (hammer) blow for justice

On a more serious note, the fact that the gavel is an inappropriate symbol of common law judicial activity does not for one moment render it inappropriate as a subject of study for the English-speaking reader outside the USA. Far from it. And for anyone who happens to be interested in the subject, this book is unlikely ever to be rivalled in either its attention to detail or its compendiousness of content. It would be churlish to suggest that less might have been more, since for the true completist less is always going to be less.

Diego Tonus can certainly be considered a true completist. He describes his labour of love, or obsession, as a ‘reasoned catalogue’ which aims to be ‘the first book entirely focusing on gavels in Western culture’. It draws from his own experience in ‘making replicas or ‘new originals’ of these hammers’ and from ‘a more objective contribution on decision-making processes and the visual representation of authority in contemporary culture’. So, this is intended to be both an artistic and an anthropological (or sociological) study.

He resists the gavel’s ‘Americanisation’, preferring the description ‘president’s hammer’ (from the Dutch voorzitterhamers). Perhaps ‘presider’ would be a better translation than ‘president’, the user of the gavel being a person chairing a meeting or presiding over a hearing, rather than occupying a particular (high / political) office.

He reproduces a cartoon, entitled Sadness Reprieve by Benjamin Dewey, in which the gavel seems to belong to the same family as hammers, mallets, meat tenderisers, ice picks etc and yet stands apart from them, sui generis, as a ritual object of ornamental design. ‘Gavel’s family doesn’t understand the nature of his work but they’re proud of his success,’ goes the caption.

Tonus begins his journey of appreciation by recalling an early ‘fetishistic’ encounter with a gavel in a display case at the International Institute of Social History in Amsterdam, and how it prompted him to make further (ultimately exhaustive) inquiries.

‘What intrigued me is that the gavel is always present, like an eye-witness at a crime scene; it is the infiltrator and the main protagonist compared to which the whole room stands as mere background.’

Some might think Tonus had allowed his imagination (or his refreshment) to run away with itself, but no one can deny either the genuineness of his interest or the thoroughness of his research.

Far more impressive, however, is the physical devotion lavished by him on the creation of the replicas or ‘new originals’ in the collections displayed here in beautiful photographs and technical drawings. The sheer variety of types of ceremonial hammer is staggering.

The book also contains a selection of essays and interviews relating to the gavel as a cultural, political or legal device. Among the curious facts encountered is that auctioneers hold the gavel by the head, not the haft. And gavels do appear in some international courts, albeit only as a symbolic object.

For anyone considering a PhD on the role of ritual in the judicial process, this book would be a good place to start. (You can buy it direct from Ideas Books.) For the rest of us, it’s a new and charming way of looking at something we probably see a bit too much of already.

Paul Magrath is one of the authors of 
Transparency in the Family Courts: Publicity and Privacy in Practice. 

Written by Ellie MacKenzie

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