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What is a Gavel?

By T. Broderick
Updated May 16, 2024
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A gavel is a small, ceremonial mallet traditionally used in both court proceedings and parliamentary procedure. Traditionally made out of hardwood, its use can indicate a number of things depending on the setting in which it is used. No matter the situation, the gavel is a symbol of power, the implications being that the person using it is has the highest authority.

It is difficult to determine when this type of mallet came into use. The Western world can trace the modern gavel to medieval England. It is likely, though, that it developed independently in many cultures hundreds of years prior, most likely a stone that was banged against a table or other object to gain the attention of a group. As law and governments developed, the gavel evolved into the instrument used today in courtrooms and deliberative bodies worldwide.

During a trial or other court proceeding, a judge will use a gavel to both open and adjourn court. For example, even though a judge may only declare a ten-minute recess for a jury trial, he or she still strikes the gavel to indicate that court is temporally adjourned. The judge uses it once again at the end of recess to indicate that court is back in session. Once the jury has come to a verdict, the judge strikes the gavel for a final time to indicate the trial is over. Besides these official uses, it is a convenient tool to bring a disorderly courtroom back to order.

The gavel plays a similar role in a parliamentary body. Like in the courtroom, tapping it once brings the meeting to order. Also, a single hard strike is a signal to restore order during a break in procedure or other commotion. A unique feature of a parliamentary gavel is that its status as a symbol of power is just as, if not more, important than its role during proceedings. For example, if power changes hands after an election, the parliamentary body will generally have a ceremony where the gavel is handed over to the government's new legislative leaders.

Outside of the rule of law, the gavel is also used at less formal meetings. The most common is an auction. Striking of the gavel by an auctioneer indicates the final sale of an item up for bid. Many private organizations with governing bodies also use gavels in ways similar to those of a parliament.

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Discussion Comments
By lovealot — On Aug 15, 2011

I remember watching court scenes on TV, like Perry Mason.The trial was almost always a murder trial. At some point in almost every episode, usually when the murderer was someone other than the defendant, the quiet courtroom would erupt in chaos. The judge would have to pound his gavel and say "order in the court," several times so things could continue.

I was impressed by the power that the judge had on all those people. It was like he had to keep pounding that gavel harder and harder, so he wouldn't lose control of the courtroom.

When I think back about this, I have to chuckle.

By BabaB — On Aug 14, 2011

I think the traditional gavel in court proceedings, some parliamentary proceedings and other formal meetings is here to stay. I would guess that some form of a gavel was used even in ancient times. I can see the Romans using one to bring a meeting or session to order and close and to call for order in the case of chaos.

Since the use of the gavel was passed on from generation to generation, the tradition has become ingrained in each generation. I think it's not just the gavel, but the action of bringing it down hard that commands respect for the judge.

By EricRadley — On Aug 14, 2011

@yseult - To add to your comment, I think more than just utilitarian and symbolic purposes, the gavel also commands respect. Let's not forget that the judge holds the power in a courtroom and that they are entitled to command a certain amount of respect as well as obedience.

By yseult — On Aug 13, 2011

@nextcorrea - The gavel does not only hold a utilitarian purpose. As @StarJo mentions, part of what makes it so important is the significance and symbolism that we attach to it.

Your comment does provide a lot of food for thought though. Do you think that a button that activates light or noise would have a similar effect on the crowd as a gavel? What would of sound would likely work best?

By kylee07drg — On Aug 12, 2011

The gavel is such a recognizable symbol that even children incorporate it into their playtime. When I was eight years old, my friends and I would hold mock trials, and we used a homemade gavel.

We took a knot off of an old fallen tree branch, and we stabbed it with my brother’s pocket knife. We also took a small square of lumber from my dad’s scrap pile to serve as a striking pad.

We would draw straws to see who got to be the judge that day. We all loved being the judge, mostly because we loved striking the gavel. We used it just like it is used in real life, to start and end a trial and to bring order to a chaotic courtroom.

By StarJo — On Aug 12, 2011

It’s strange how something so simple and relatively harmless can bring about obedience from a large group of people. I personally tense up when a gavel is banged in a courtroom, and the sound fills me with fear and dread.

I was sitting in a courtroom while my friend’s rapist was on trial. When he admitted what he did to her and described it in detail, her husband burst forth with rage and threats. The judge immediately picked up the gavel and went to banging it, and he quieted down quickly. Everyone else got quiet as well, and you could hear a cricket chirp.

Its power lies in what it signifies. People know that if they ignore the sound of the gavel, they could end up in prison for contempt of court.

By nanny3 — On Aug 12, 2011

@nextcorrea – You know, I had thought the same thing before myself. It does seem like we are making so many advancements in our world, and throwing out so many of our old habits, that the gavel would be nixed as well.

However, I have to say that I real like the historic, quaint quality the gavel has. I am one of those folks who thrive on tradition and have a wholehearted respect for the ways of the past.

I also appreciate the future and all of the developments we are seeing in our world. However, it is really – I don’t know- comforting, maybe to see something purely symbolic of the past alive and well in our advanced society.

By gravois — On Aug 11, 2011

@nextcorrea - Your post kind of ties in directly to a question I have been wondering about. So the gavel is a feature of western legal proceedings, primarily Britain and the US. But do they use some alternative to the gavel in Asian or Latin American courts?

It seems like there are lots of things which could do the same job as a gavel, a whistle or a drum or some kind of siren as you suggested. And is the control over it always in the hands of the judge? I guess I mostly want to know how courts work in other parts of the world. Some how I feel like I have never once seen them depicted on film or TV or in a book.

By nextcorrea — On Aug 11, 2011

Honestly, I'm kind of surprised that we still use a gavel. You would think that if its only purpose was to call people to attention we would have moved on to some kind of electric sound and light system. The judge would press a button and it would just activate.

But the law seems to change slowly. Look at how many centuries old traditions are still dominant features of legal proceedings. I imagine that the gavel will be around for a long time even if other things make more sense.

By chivebasil — On Aug 10, 2011

My grandfather was a judge and I have the gavel that he used through most of his career. he must have banged it at least a thousand time.

At one point my family had one of his robes but it was lost to moths a few years ago. At least we still have that gavel. I loved playing with it as a kid and now I think it is a sweet reminder of my grandfather and his life's work. I am going to have to take better care of it though. Decades of banging have let it pretty worn out.

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