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Would Taking Banksy to Court Mean He'd Have to Reveal His Identity?

By Vaidehi Mehta, Esq. | Last updated on

Banksy: maybe the most famous nobody in the world. The anonymous England-based street artist, political activist, and film director is known internationally for his satirical street art and subversive epigrams. Banksy's works of political and social commentary have been featured on streets, walls, and bridges of cities throughout the world. His politically charged pieces, often done in a distinctive stenciling style, have garnered attention and provoked discussion around the globe, cementing his status as an influential figure in contemporary art.

Despite his international fame, Banksy has managed to keep his identity a well-guarded secret, which has only furthered the allure of his work. The man (or woman? or group?) has managed to find himself in no shortage of legal issues, even in the past year alone. Now, it looks like he’s getting taken back to court by a couple of art collectors who are fed up with his company refusing to authenticate one of the pieces they’ve bought. Will this latest brush with the law finally unmask him?

Monkey Business

Nicky Katz and Ray Howse bought one of Banksy’s most famous prints from 2003, Monkey Queen. It depicts the late Queen Elizabeth II of England as a primate, with 600 unsigned and 150 signed prints circulating in the world. The collectors bought their copy for about £30,000 ($38,430) back in 2020, and since then, they’ve been trying to get it authenticated with “Pest Control.”  

"Pest Control" is the name of the handling service acting on behalf of Banksy, and is responsible for authenticating and managing the sale of his artwork. Pest Control was set up by Banksy to help validate the authenticity of his work and to prevent the sale of fakes. They are the only point of sale for new works and the body that issues certificates of authenticity for Banksy pieces. Due to the artist's anonymity and the nature of his street art, the role of Pest Control is particularly important in maintaining the integrity of Banksy's art market.

A Pest for Collectors

But the problem for Katz and Howse? Pest Control refused to authenticate their print, despite them paying the service £50 to do so. Katz alleges that his copy of the limited print series is potentially worth up to £70,000, but because Pest Control refuses to authenticate it, he can’t sell it for its full value. Now, after years of waiting, the two maintain they will sue the company for breach of contract for refusing to provide the service they paid for.

Now that the artist is once again looking at a day in court, a lot of questions have been raised about whether that would jeopardize his anonymity. News outlets have speculated that the lawsuit could finally force the artist to reveal his identity. But is that really true? Or can Banksy continue to live in the shadows, even as he faces his day in court? Let’s talk about the public nature of court trials, closed proceedings, and the potential for preserving anonymity in legal proceedings.

Open Justice

Firstly, it’s important to note that the potential lawsuit would be a civil action, rather than criminal. In England, where the Banksy suit would likely be filed, civil trials are generally held in public. This is largely shaped by the principle of "open justice,” which is a cornerstone of legal systems based on British law. The U.S., being a former British colony, is one of the countries that has adopted and continues to use principles from the British justice system. Thus, open justice also shapes the public nature of American courtrooms.

Open justice emphasizes transparency in judicial proceedings through public oversight. A court hearing that is open to the public allows public scrutiny of the legal process. This transparency is seen as essential for maintaining public confidence in the fairness and impartiality of the courts. Open proceedings make it clear that the courts are functioning properly and following the law. Observing trials allows the public to understand how the legal system works. Overall, the transparency of this process is essential for democracy, which is of course an important value to both the U.S. and Britain.

Apart from fostering democracy through transparency, open justice has other benefits, including deterrence of misconduct and improving the accuracy of decisions. Public scrutiny discourages judges and court officials from acting improperly. Additionally, openness can encourage witnesses to come forward or challenge inaccurate information presented in court.

Private Trials

But open justice isn't absolute, and it is possible to request that a civil trial be held in private. There might be exceptions in specific cases to protect concerns surrounding national security, the privacy of certain vulnerable individuals (like children and victims of abuse), and commercial confidentiality (relevant here). Other reasons for making such a request might include the protection of sensitive personal information, protecting the privacy of witnesses or jurors, or avoiding prejudicing jury selection.

As you can see from these examples, though, these are pretty compelling reasons for the court to depart from the norm of public hearings. Thus, it’s no surprise that such requests are not granted lightly, and it is not unusual for courts to deny such requests if they feel that the argument for privacy is not sufficiently strong. When such concerns arise, a judge will weigh the need for openness against the need for secrecy. The goal is to strike a balance that upholds both transparency and fairness.

To have a civil trial held in private or to seal records, a party must file a “motion to seal” with the court. This motion should detail the specific reasons for the request and why those reasons outweigh the public's interest in access to the information. The court will then consider the motion, and the judge will decide whether the interests served by maintaining confidentiality are more compelling than the presumption of open proceedings. The party seeking to seal the proceedings has the burden to demonstrate that the need for secrecy is greater than the need for openness, which is a principle that’s always assumed.

What We Can Expect for Banksy

So, will Banksy have to reveal himself to the court? Probably. But will he also have to unmask himself publicly? There’s certainly a good reason to believe he won’t. Again, this all depends on whether his lawyers can convince the judge that maintaining his anonymity is more important than the benefits of this particular trial being public. In any case, don’t hold your breath—we may not be finding out the identity of this elusive artist any time soon.

Worried About Your Own Privacy?

If you are involved in a civil trial in the U.S. and you believe there is a need for privacy, it's important to consult with an attorney who can advise on the strength of your case and the specific process for making such a request in the jurisdiction where the trial is taking place. In some cases involving personal injury, divorce, or other civil trials, it may be possible to keep the trial and court documents private.

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