Where does the coat of arms in BC courtrooms come from? What does it mean?

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One of the most notable features of any British Columbia courtroom is the large coat of arms on the wall behind the judge’s bench. Unlike courts in many other Canadian provinces, all of the courts in our province have traditionally displayed the Royal Arms of the United Kingdom, the official coat of arms of the British monarch. It features two mottoes - “Dieu et Mon Droit” and “Honi Soit Qui Mal y Pense”.

Coats of arms emerged in early medieval times, when most people could not read. Symbols like arms, banners, and badges became important to indicate the importance and presence of the persons who bore them, like the King or Queen. During the reign of King Henry II in the 12th century, particular members of the King’s Court (as his entourage was known at the time) began to specialize in the law and to act as judges. These judges derived their authority from the sovereign, and used the sovereign’s coat of arms as a symbol of the source of their authority.

When the British arrived on the west coast of North America in the 19th century, they brought their traditional judicial icons with them. Those icons included red or black robes, powdered wigs - and the Royal Arms of the United Kingdom. In 1856 an order in council prescribed the use of this coat of arms in British Columbia and our courts have continued to use them ever since.

Today, lawyers underline the importance of the coat of arms by bowing as they enter or leave court. The lawyers are not bowing to the judge - they are bowing to the coat of arms on the wall above her, to show their respect for our system of justice.

What about the mottoes?

“Dieu et Mon Droit” is a French phrase that can be translated as “God and my right”. It is the motto of the English sovereign, and is said to have originated in 1198 at the Battle of Gisors, when Richard the Lionheart adopted it as a password for his forces. It was a declaration by the English king that he owed no duty of loyalty to Phillip, the king of France.

The second motto, which is partially concealed by the forelegs of the lion and the unicorn, is “Honi Soit Qui Mal y Pense”. This Old French phrase may be translated as “shame on him who thinks this evil”. It is the motto of the Order of the Garter, the most exclusive of the chivalric orders. Legend has it that King Edward III, founder of the Order of the Garter, was dancing with his mistress at a ball. When the lady’s blue garter slipped off, the King picked it up and tied it around his own leg. To those who looked askance, he proclaimed, “honi soit qui mal y pense”.

Heraldry in BC Courts

Heraldry in BC has a long and interesting history, and the use of the Royal Arms of the United Kingdom in the courtrooms of British Columbia is not without controversy. While serving as District Registrar of the BC Supreme Court, Mr. Justice Blok wrote that the use of the Royal Arms, rather than the coats of arms of Canada or British Columbia, properly reflected the independence of the judiciary from the executive and legislative branches of government. As he put it, “Not only must the judiciary be separate, it must be seen to be separate.”

Mr. C.S.T. Mackie responded with a call for change, and argued that the coat of arms displayed in British Columbia’s courtrooms is a relic of colonial times. In Mr. Mackie’s view, since the coat of arms displayed in a courtroom traditionally symbolizes the sovereign whose authority is exercised in that courtroom, courtrooms of the BC Provincial Court should display the BC Royal Arms, and courtrooms of the BC Supreme Court and Court of Appeal should display the Canadian Royal Arms.

The courts and BC government ministries responsible for court facilities have considered the arms displayed in court rooms many times and declined to change them. There are legal and historical arguments for maintaining the traditional coat of arms. There is also a practical reason for all B.C. courtrooms to use the same arms – in many areas of the province both trial courts use the same courtrooms when necessary to accommodate trials.

While people interested in heraldry continue to debate the issue, B.C.’s courts have maintained tradition, and the Royal Arms of the United Kingdom continue to hang in our courtrooms.

Royal Coat of Arms of the United Kingdom" by Sodacan. This vector image was created with Inkscape. - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons - bit.ly/1PnuS8U