Theatres of Justice: Process, Spectatorship, and Aesthetic Legitimacy

Image 1: Gram Nyayalaya in session. Source:  

Image 2: Dispute over the Status and Use of the Waters of the Silala (Chile v. Bolivia) – Public hearings – First Round. Source: . Courtesy of the ICJ. All rights reserved.

By: Mohit Kumar, Swati Aadtiya, and Yookta Ahuja

Ed Morgan notes how in analysing a trial – 

…especially a complex war crimes trial raising international issues, specific communal conflict, and domestic procedure – lawyers experience the pleasure and pain of interpretation. Just as one might attend ten Shakespeare festivals in one season and see ten different and equally correct productions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, so might one come away from ten war crimes trials feeling differently about the trial process and the events depicted there. (Morgan, 2005, p. 164) 

Any legal mechanism is meant to deliver justice without bias to persons under its jurisdiction. The judgement of a judicial body derives legitimacy from its separation from the legislative and executive bodies of a state, and equally from its process and performance. Setting a trial requires not only back and forth between the defendant and the accuser, but also the reaction of the audience to which it is accessible. This photo-essay aims to explore aforementioned delivery of justice via two levels of visual aesthetic treatment: on the level of a Gram Nyayalaya (or a village court) in India, and the International Court of Justice – the principal judicial organ of the United Nations (UN), located at the Peace Palace in The Hague, Netherlands. It does so by looking at both these settings in a theatrical context and juxtaposing them via architecture and space, actors, and audiences – setting the metaphor of a trial as a performance (Morgan, 2005). 

Performativity of Trial: Setting the Stage

Keith Bybee notes in their paper that we often overlook buildings in our analysis of courts. We forget that judiciary systems did and continue to exist outside them, and looking at their design, we might be able to talk more precisely about “jurisprudence of the real”. In extended treatments of architecture’s communicative power, Mulcahy, Resnik, and Curtis (as cited in Bybee 2012) trace the evolution of courthouses, offering generally complementary stories about how diverse architectural and décor schemes have communicated specific ideas about law and judging. Mulcahy, Resnik, and Curtis also link the communicative capacities of court design to changes in social environment, extending the idea that architectural expression is linked to social realities. Bybee explains how during the first few thousand years of human history, “every thought, no matter how complicated, was embodied in some structure; every idea that rose up from the people, every religious law, had its counterpart in monuments; finally, every important thought of the human race was recorded in stone” (Hugo 2005, 181; as cited in Bybee 2012). Architecture was eventually replaced by the Gutenberg’s press as the newer, more credible source of knowledge, but still continued to embody characteristics of the institution itself.

Apart from architecture’s direct communicative power, the process of formalisation of space, and the reasoning behind the same is key to understanding courts as theatres. Marina Askenova argues that art is implicit in the rhetoric of international courts; and examines the apparent opposition between ethics and aesthetics (Askinova, 2020). 

Ethics is a branch of knowledge that is outcome-oriented: the goal is to apply generalised principles to a specific matter in order to attain a result aligned with a certain moral. In contrast, aesthetics is concerned with the process through which such action takes place. (p105)

When this logic is applied to international justice, it becomes evident that what matters is not only the material result of international courts’ work in the form of a judgement or order for restitution, but also the method by which this result was reached. The robes worn by international judges, the rhetoric used by the parties, the layout of the courtroom, and the architecture of an international court all contribute to how individuals associated with it and those watching it from the “outside” perceive international justice (Askenova, 2020).

Visual setting is important as it creates an increased awareness and attention to ‘the event’ and further working on them has a long lasting impact on them (Constantinou, 2018). As is visible in the image of the ICJ – the jury is seated opposite to the audience or the representatives of different countries on a stage with  their chairs placed at an elevation. To a spectator viewing the courtroom, it clearly communicates authority and a sense of removal from and of the ordinary in order to seek judgement. The tinted glasses and grandeur tell us much about those in this performative equation – in terms of who is seeking this justice, what are the affective notions of this theatre, and who the spectators of this justice are. In contrast to this, we have a Gram Nyayalaya. The space is outside in natural light. We see that it is formed by people, not infrastructure. The audience is in a circular assembly, with the village head in the centre. The positioning of a man in the centre tells us he is responsible for the delivery of justice in the conflict. It is its own theatre. The establishment of Gram Nyayalayas, was to provide a grassroots level access to justice to citizens – and we believe this is the key to understanding the gap in understanding the delivery of justice, both at a macro and micro level. 

When a citizen approaches the Gram Nyayalaya, they are aware of the scope and criteria of judgement. If he is wrongly judged, he has a community to rely on – that the judgement is held accountable to. The citizen can also use appellate mechanisms, or approach a higher level court in the legal chain. The audience of international courts however does not have an active say in the court proceeding itself, since it is detached and invisible. The boundary of the audience itself blurs in the context of the International Court of Justice, since the notion of citizenship evaporates on a global scale. One can trace the significance of the audiences from the pictures:  Only a few people are visible in the first image. One can identify them as mainly the representatives of the states in conflict or as employees of the court depending on their attire, but the larger audience of any proceeding in this space is not constrained within it. The Gram Nyayalaya on the other hand has an audience which is specific, and physically close to the proceeding itself. In this way, aesthetics of both places speak a lot about their working, influence, and considerations. It is also interesting to note the mobility of the Gram Nyayalaya. They have the flexibility to visit the areas of its jurisdictions, and conduct trials in proximity to the place of cause of action or people involved. The mobility of Gram Nyayalaya reflects its engagement level with parties involved, general audiences, and keeping any execution delays at bay. 

This photo-essay analysed the delivery of justice using the framework of a theatrical performance. The parallel was understood by looking at differences between audience and spectatorship, whose agency changed with the variability of citizenship in the two contexts. In the Gram Nyayalaya, a mobile grassroots justice delivery system, we saw how the space formed by bodies makes it a people’s court, holding its decisions accountable to an active, participatory audience. This was in contrast with the International Court of Justice, which imbibes art and architecture as rhetoric, and draws its authority from the aesthetic process as much as it does from the ethical. The visual interpretation of legal systems is thus indicative of the characteristic capabilities and/or limitations of the institutions themselves, making aesthetic analysis key to understanding operations as well as outcomes of the court-settings.