Mea Culpa: Order in court – no gavels

A mistaken cliché of court reporting, and other Americanisms, in recent editions of The Independent

John Rentoul
Friday 11 November 2016 19:22
This needs to be knocked on the head. English courts do not use gavels
This needs to be knocked on the head. English courts do not use gavels

“English judges have never used gavels. Some people think they do. They’re wrong.” Thus says a social media account called Inappropriate Gavels, drawn to my attention by Andrew Denny. This is correct, which is why we should not have used a stock photo, presumably of an American gavel (above), to illustrate an article about “joint enterprise” murder verdicts being reconsidered in the English Court of Appeal.

Gavels are not used in Scottish courts either. I don’t know about Northern Ireland. There is one caveat. English and Scottish judges don’t use gavels, but you may see a gavel in a British court, because the clerks in Inner London Crown Court do use them “to alert parties in court to the entrance of the judge into the courtroom”. Even fewer people know that.

Meet and appeal: Unless we are wrongly describing British practices, there is nothing wrong with Americanisms in style and grammar. As any pedant knows, many usages that are conventional in America are truer to 17th-century English than our own evolving conventions. We used “meet with” several times last week, mostly referring to the photo opportunity of Donald Trump sitting next to and shaking the hand of Barack Obama.

Many British pedants find this irritating, and rationalise their preference by claiming that the “with” is unnecessary. So “President-elect Trump met President Obama” is all we need. The trouble is that the same people (that is, me) had their teeth put on edge by a statement from the Prime Minister’s office on the day of the High Court ruling on Article 50, which said: “The Government is determined to respect the result of the referendum. We will appeal this judgment.”

The British convention is to say “...appeal against this judgment”. Which would be to add an unnecessary word.

So let us not pretend that these so-called rules make any sense. But let us try to remember that some usages grate with a significant number of readers. It is merely good manners – and in our self-interest – to avoid distracting them.

Different kind of pain: On Tuesday last week we reported on the lorry driver who killed four people because he was fiddling with his music collection on his phone instead of watching the road. We wrote about the video from the dashboard camera showing “the painstaking seconds in which the 30-year-old scrolled through music”.

As Kolya Wolf wrote to point out, we meant a word such as “agonising”. The word “painstaking” means “pains-taking”, that is, taking the pain or trouble to do something carefully. It is confusing to use it to mean something that is painful to watch.

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