Friday, 26 June 2020

Judging by appearances

Pope II, Francis Bacon, 1951, Kunsthalle Mannheim
Online hearings, eh. Screenshotting and drawing from the screen are illegal. I don’t see the point of drawing from memory when you can google the postage-stamp faces.

Robed or not, the judges trapped in their doll’s house squares on Skype for Business evoke Francis Bacon’s screaming popes. The stifled command, the confinement, the frustration with the bundles.

Above the Master of the Rolls, the grid lines of polystyrene ceiling tiles recede to infinity. They echo the popes’ geometric cages of paint.

The Master of the Rolls’s camera is not static so we view his surroundings from different angles. A green glass banker’s table lamp, a Victorian tiled fireplace, photos on the mantelpiece, highlighter pens, teal and dark red curtains in a design I would call ‘John Lewis first nation’. 

He sips water from cut crystal while presiding in a panel of three judges which I represent thus:
Sir Osbert Sitwell; Sir Sacheverell Sitwell, 6th Bt; Edith Sitwell by Cecil Beaton,
vintage bromide print, 1927, National Portrait Gallery, London

At a time when we are encouraged or mandated to wear masks, the case concerns automated facial recognition (AFR). Counsel muses where AFR stands in relation to other areas of identification such as fingerprinting,  DNA or CCTV. He asserts that CCTV is a greater intrusion than AFR in that it identifies ‘what a person is wearing or doing’, makes a ‘moving record of a person’s actions…happy or sad, peaceful, drunk or aggressive’; ‘identifies who a person is with and [apparently] talking to’. AFR is a tool that ‘simply narrows the pool of individuals that an officer would be looking at.’

Ed Bridges disagrees. Liberty, supporting him in R (Bridges) v CC South Wales & others, comments: 'In the world’s first legal challenge to police use of this tech, Ed is arguing the force is breaching rights to privacy, data protection laws, and equality laws.' One argument is that AFR can produce false positives/negatives, like Covid-19 tests.

Jason Beer QC wears antlers made of a light fitting. No one is robed, but if this were a real court should masks be added? Yes, says barrister and singer Ben Seifert, campaigning on the basis that courtrooms are enclosed talking shops with poor air flow.

Here is a faithful representation of the hearing:
Francis Bacon’s Study for a Head under the hammer at Sotheby’s New York, 2019

A – pumped-up legal commentator holding gavel
B – observer in jacket by Cath Kidston (subsequently in receivership owing to Covid-19 but now trading online)
C – legal teams
D – bench
Artist Jacqueline Nicholls in her own mask
Next day brings an application hearing for Depp v News Group Newspapers Ltd & another before Mr Justice Nicol. The start is delayed while Skype for Business is temperamental. The name of Johnny Depp appears among the blanked-out observers. Numbers diminish as time goes on.

The clerk, looking cool and elegant, announces: ‘Judge has said if you want to remove jackets that’s fine.’ Counsel X waits for the judge to say it himself, then takes off his jacket, revealing too much information (sweat).  

Counsel Y, more crumpled and tousled (but in a showbizzy way) than counsel X, sagely keeps his jacket on; he also has the best lighting. He laments 'a strong sense of ambush' having received 58 documents from the other side yesterday. He presents a controlled amount of head-shaking exasperation without lapsing into querulousness. When he is not speaking we see the cornice and the top of his head – he could be eating a fry-up or talking to Johnny Depp out of sight of lip-readers, who knows.

We see the jacketless judge only in close-up, in Caravaggesque chiaroscuro. He appears to be wearing a blue and white Bengal stripe shirt from T. M. Lewin, one of which I am cannibalising for masks.

I recoil from the unedifying Punch and Judy content of this application, on a tiresomely hot day when disease, political mismanagement and climate disaster stalk the land. There is talk of vodka, domestic violence, a post-nup. The judge slows right down when taking notes about the drugs (‘MDA?’ he enquires), not on familiar working territory it would seem.

While l am watching, tech problems are confined to muffled underwater sound from one, and the capriciousness of the Skype connection. The participants display Covid-friendly face and hair touching, nose and ear scratching and one imaginary beard stroking.

The obligatory offstage electric drill strikes about 90 minutes in.





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