Judges, Judging and Humour

By Roberts, Heather | Law & Society Review, January 1, 2019 | Go to article overview

Judges, Judging and Humour


Roberts, Heather, Law & Society Review


Judges, Judging and Humour. Edited by Jessica Milner Davis and Sharyn Roach Anleu. Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018

In his Foreword to Judges, Judging and Humour, former Justice of the High Court of Australia Michael Kirby reflects upon his varied experiences of judicial humour over decades working in courtrooms. One anecdote of an unnamed judge brings to the fore the complexities of judicial humour in form and function - complexities that this outstanding collection deftly explores:

He was a brilliant after-dinner speaker. Much of his humour was sardonic. He revelled in his deliberate political incorrectness. For decades it drew great crowds and thunderous applause. However, when this judge told his joke about "hairy legged lesbians" once too often, the laughter turned to ashes in his mouth. His put-downs and insults came to be seen as needlessly cruel. New generations came to see them as inappropriate to the holder of a judicial office. (viii)

Just as an Australian reader can readily recognise the unnamed judge in this anecdote, humour relies greatly upon contextual knowledge. As the collection illustrates, humour reinforces social connections and shared values, all dependent on time, place and cultural coincidences. Kirby's anecdote also demonstrates the pitfalls inherent in a misreading of that context and one's audience. What may be thought to be appropriate in an after-dinner speech in the 1990s may not be tolerated in different contexts. The shift to which Kirby refers reflects these changing expectations and changing audiences - from a predominantly male elite to a more diverse legal profession. Whether a speaker is conscious of this shift and modifies his or her behaviour accordingly reflects a deeper understanding of self and what it means to be a judge. A misjudgement on the appropriateness of humour can, in turn, raise questions regarding the underlying values and preconceptions held by the speaker, leading, in the case of a judge, to concerns regarding judicial bias, and fitness for office. Examples of this pepper Galanter's discussion of "Funny Judges" in his exploration of humour about judges in the United States in Chapter 3 of the collection.

The inherent nuance surrounding humour, and the fine lines involved in determining what makes a remark humorous in different contexts, has minded many judicial officers to issue warnings regarding its use.1 However, as the collection expertly illustrates, humour can have multiple purposes in legal contexts, including beneficial purposes such as managing courtroom workloads and diffusing tension (see, eg Blix and Wettergren's discussion in Chapter 6 of humour in Swedish courts). This should be no surprise. In addition to their role as theatres of justice, courtrooms are social environments, and court officers, including judges, humans interacting in social spaces, as the two chapters co-authored by Roach Anleu skilfully demonstrate (see Chapters 1,5).

This collection embraces the complexities inherent in a study of humour and courts, offering significant fresh insights into the role of these interactions. A key strength of the collection is its expansive methodology: its three parts spanning research from four continents, and a range of interdisciplinary approaches. …

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