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Working Hardly: Random Facts about the Gavel

Cartoon judge and gavel

The iconic hammer of justice seems ubiquitous in pop culture. Every time I watch a crime show, there’s an exasperated judge shouting “Order! Order!” and banging their gavel. Despite this, little is known about the enigmatic mallet of the law.

There are plenty of theories, but the origin of the gavel is somewhat shrouded in mystery.

Gavels are typically made of wood, although other materials are sometimes used. For example, the gavel used in the United States Senate is made from ivory and has no handle.

The discovery that Australian judges don’t use gavels was probably the most disappointing moment of my law degree. In fact, the Australian judiciary has never used gavels. In Australia you’ll only see a gavel at an auction or in a poorly researched courtroom scene on TV. But then how do our judges maintain courtroom order?

As retired High Court Justice Michael Kirby once told Radio Atticus, “I had lots of quite emotional situations, but I never, never felt any need for a gavel… it’s ridiculous. Why do you need to be hammering away on the bench? A few kindly or strong words, a few frosty glares, and the whole place falls into the right situation.”

Gavels aren’t a feature of the UK court system either; it seems that the heartland of gavel use is the United States. But even the judges in America’s courts aren’t as gavel-happy as their fictional television counterparts. Judges in lower courts will use gavels occasionally to maintain order, but higher court judges do not.

That said, gavels in the US are still kind of a ‘big deal’. Don’t believe me? Check out this sculpture in Ohio:

Giant Gavel

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