The Colours of Justice

Observations at an Inquest*

Gavel, by noyava, with Creative Commons licenceBrown and beige are the colour scheme of bureaucracy. They combine to imply formality, procedure – the dull grind of life. Within them lies a nostalgia for fashion since past, a hint of the 1970s almost 40 years on, a sort of resistance to trends, to things of the moment. Bureaucracy resists change, remains outside the flow of happenstance, because it directs the momentum of society, modulates what is acceptable, determines the limits of permissibility. The Coroner’s Court in Hong Kong is brown and beige, with a touch of olive to induce a sense of refrain – nothing too bright, too noticeable, too complicated will happen here. All is sombre. It’s a place where people often cry, because death is a burden for the living.

An inquest is a difficult time – it revives the life of a person past, disgorges detail best left at peace. But the necessity of finding a reason for a previously unexplained death dictates witnesses, questions, counter-questions, a solemn jury, a stern Justice and associated personnel. It has a colour of its own, a sort of grey, a mood that pervades each step of the process. Old friends speak in fits and starts, new friends speculate, lawyers direct recollections toward possible evidence of suicide or its lack; all done subtlety, moving around the subject as though it wasn’t quite there.

Only the inner area of the court is uniformly lit, a spotlight on the inquisitors, a white florescent statement that the process has a focus – neither on the witnesses nor on the deceased, but on the apparatchiks of the state, the authority of the court to determine, well after the fact, how the death occurred. The other areas are touched with more subdued lighting and the occasional lapse into shadow in the corners, a grey fade to black that mirrors the mood throughout. It’s about unity of purpose and the primacy of process.

All official parties take seats in shades of red, most with a tinge of brown that invests them with sobriety, as though it might transfer to the occupants through a sort of osmosis. The Coroner takes a larger, taller seat befitting his role as a Justice, not merely a representative of the government but an embodiment of the law. Yet, interestingly, he shifts as much as we in the visitors’ gallery do, in our back-torturing sojourner seats. But his chair is a deep and regal red of the type that other, lesser reds may aspire to be, and ours are merely brown, with the fakery of wood grain pasted on.  Slouch he might, but his is no casual presence.

Shadow of a Doubt, by Faithful Chant, with Creative Commons licenceThe day passes slowly, each witness marking an hour, half an hour, fifteen minutes. A white-faced clock with black numerals bides its time on one wall, marking each exposition of the deceased’s life with regularity, erasing time until the jury must decide how the death occurred, why it might have come to pass, who might have known more than the police inferred. The jurors pour over a sample list of possible findings, restrained by protocol, obliged soon to sift the many colours of their perceptions into a single hue-less explanation.

Tomorrow they will speak.

*Written at the Eastern Magistracy, Hong Kong on the third day of the inquest into Vicky Flores’ death. The latest details of the case are available at A Death in Hong Kong.


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