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Deck the court room walls, courtyards and justice offices with more art?

01 November 2016 - By Nick Butcher

A call by a Waikato lawyer for more art to be hanging on the walls of courtrooms and other related offices has the backing of a Queen’s Counsel.

And while the walls would be brightened up perhaps it might have a strong psychological effect on defendants and witnesses in the theatre of court.

Hamilton barrister, Roger Laybourn made the observation recently in an article published by stuff.co.nz, in which he said that everyone benefits from a more welcoming environment.

And Christchurch-based barrister, Nigel Hampton QC agrees.

“Let art be hung and displayed in courts, but please the new along with the old, the modern with the historic,” he says.

Ministry has artworks filling justice offices and courtrooms stretching from Auckland to Southland

The Ministry of Justice has many artworks including some sculptures worth thousands of dollars scattered in Courtrooms stretching from Auckland to Southland.

They include Jacob Manu Scott’s Kaitiaki Manu: Guardians of the Bird which stands guard outside Hastings District Court. It has a value of just over $45,000.

There is also a mural by James Turkington worth $70,000 in Bay of Plenty with the total justice art collection there valued at over $150,000.

The Ministry of Justice has been collecting artworks over the past 140 years.

It says while many of the artworks have high dollar values attached to them, others are listed at just $1 because they were most likely donated to the Ministry.

The vast collection includes pieces by Central Otago’s Grahame Sydney, Hawkes Bay’s Dick Frizzell and Auckland’s Jana Beer, to name a few.

A looming battle for art in Christchurch brewing?

But while Mr Hampton supports Roger Laybourn’s view, he has some strong views about what artworks should fill the new Christchurch Justice and Emergency Services Precinct being built in the post-earthquake development.

“I cannot understand the current resistance by the Ministry to include, in the new court complex in Christchurch, various pieces of existing art including, from the present number 1 High Court, the various portraits of Supreme and High Court Judges - in the official's words, "prominent judge(s)" from days gone by.

These portraits, commissioned by the then Canterbury District Law Society and paid for by its members, were effectively gifted to the Ministry to grace the walls of the High Court. Each is a large piece in oils. Each from the brushes of renowned artists. Each portray, a judge in a different setting, a different pose. Each revelatory of character, but no room, apparently, for them to hang in the new courts,” he says.

Mr Hampton says perhaps, as with the nearly 150 year old carved kauri High Court canopy and dais, the portraits are seen by the Ministry and architects and designers as not fitting with the "design aesthetics" of the new building, or are they seen as too intimidating.

“And in relation to that canopy and dais, it is not just my view that it is an historic and particularly beautiful piece of courtroom furniture pleasing to the eye - the arts columnist for "The Press", Christopher Moore, wrote of the dais as being a "major slice of history" and a "highly significant item of legal art".

I suspect Christchurch is to be left with more of the bland on bland approach, I regret to say. Oh, blessed boring uniformity,” he says.

Nigel Hampton QC says similar historic and artistic daises and canopies can be found in superior Courts in Auckland, Wellington and Dunedin and similar portraits of judges are to be found hung in New Zealand courts.

However despite Mr Hampton’s explosive concerns, a Ministry for Justice spokesperson says no decision has been made on what artworks will be included at the new Justice and Emergency Services Precinct.

“The Ministry for Justice and its sector partners are currently focused on the completion of the Christchurch Justice and Emergency Services Precinct and its opening in the middle of next year.  No decisions have been made on the placement of existing portraits or other artworks within the precinct,” the spokesperson says.

The Ministry of Justice has over 100 related sites scattered across the country. They include courts, tribunals and building used for other services, including legal aid and the Public Defence Service so the artworks are not confined to just the court houses.

Photo of Hastings courthouse
Hastings courthouse. 

Aside from looking nice, do artworks in Courtrooms have any psychological effect or benefit to people within those life changing four walls?

Armon Tamatea is a Senior Lecturer at the School of Psychology at the University of Waikato.

He says there is very little published research on the mental effect of courtroom artworks.

“The bigger issues seem to be about courtroom design. That is whether the layout, the use of space, and whether the overall contours of the courtroom facilitate the separation of people or even bringing people together. Arguably, the strategic inclusion of artwork in these spaces may serve to accentuate these functions.

"Indeed, if we consider courtrooms to be combative spaces, the fixtures and aesthetic features may well reflect that reality. For instance, given that New Zealand has an adversarial legal system, the design of courts enhances this position with physical separation between the prosecution, defence, jury, the accused, the Judge, and the public – who are also an ‘audience’ of sorts. Some artwork may serve to enhance this sense of interpersonal distance and sanctioned, albeit uneven, distribution of power,” he says.

Could particular styles of artworks decorating the walls have a positive effect when the courtroom is in progress during a criminal trial?

That’s another office water cooler question worth pondering but Mr Tamatea says it would depend on the state of mind the courtroom is intended to foster.

“For example, abstract images that are somewhat ambiguous may elicit interest and contemplation which is a positive mood state and may prompt a degree of introspective reflection on one’s own actions and sense of responsibility, but the same images might also provoke uncertainty – a negative mood state – especially in a context where an individual is confronting a major life event that is largely in the control of others, such as a lengthy jail sentence,” he says.

At the High Court in Wellington, the walls in Courtroom One are under the glare of former judges whose painted portraits adorn the otherwise bare walls.

Could those portraits be potentially creating agitation for a defendant facing the prospect of a long prison sentence?

Mr Tamatea says New Zealand courts are not only a formal theatre where the process of justice occurs, but are also spaces that express an explicitly colonial history, as observed by the regulations, rites, and ever-present display of the coat of arms.

“Indeed, New Zealand courtrooms contain historical symbols that are respected by many and resented by others. The prominence of portraits of Judges is an interesting example, and may communicate a visible reverence for those who have served to oversee justice but also speaks to the primacy of the administration of justice above other aspects. For instance, given that courts are also institutions implemented to serve the community, the inclusion of community art in these spaces may also encourage a sense of participation in justice,” he says.

Last updated on the 16th September 2019