Reinventing the design of courthouses for better access to justice

Through Clair Colburn | October 31, 2021, 8:02 p.m. EDT

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Clair Colburn

The design of courthouses has always been guided by tradition and precedent with relatively little public participation. How can architects, in collaboration with the courts, advance the design of courthouses in order to provide better access to justice?

The traditional and iconic courthouses are elevated by a series of steps and feature colonnaded stone facades with relatively small windows. The overall effect personifies the dignity and strength of the law, but such designs also prevent access for people with reduced mobility.

Today architects and courts should strive to create a good public experience and effect a significant paradigm shift from classic courthouse style to one that takes into account the perspectives of stressed and vulnerable members of the court. public who visit courthouses. It should start by considering what message the courthouse is communicating to the public before people even enter the building.

For example, having the entrance to the courthouse at ground level, rather than raising it with steps, not only makes the courthouse physically accessible as there are no steps or stairs. ramps to navigate, but it also creates a more welcoming and human-centered overall ladder. Meanwhile, a facade made of glass and permeable materials lets natural light into the building and offers a better view of the interior, representing a literal and figurative transparency that encourages confidence.

Within the building, designers have the opportunity to address recent cultural calculations regarding privileges and prejudices by focusing on inclusion and incorporating all-gender toilets, breastfeeding rooms and signage in multiple languages. .

Courtrooms can also adopt trauma-informed design principles. Designing to reduce trauma begins with the recognition that environments affect people’s psychological state.

The main goals are empowerment and stress reduction, and one of the most effective ways to achieve this is to provide clear organizational layouts of public spaces so that the building can be navigated intuitively. Such arrangements may include, for example, courtrooms occupying the same area within a building and incorporating floor numbers into the nomenclature. This allows first-time visitors to be less dependent on signage.

Access to natural light and views of nature are also proven stress reducers, which is why fenestration – the arrangement and design of windows and doors – is especially important in public halls and living spaces. deliberation of the jury.

Considering the impact of the pandemic on legal procedures and services

Designers should examine court procedures and services to better understand and meet the needs of all building users. The modalities of court cases have broadened to accommodate arbitration approaches that include alternative dispute resolution procedures such as mediation and arbitration, as well as restorative justice.

These new modalities require a different architectural layout. Unlike the axial and hierarchical approach of judicial proceedings where communication takes place only between lawyers and judges, ADR spaces should facilitate interaction and reconciliation between the parties. The size and proportion of the room, as well as the furniture and carpentry, should be designed to promote eye contact and harmony around a common table.

Additionally, the courts’ response to the COVID-19 pandemic – leveraging technology to deliver proceedings and services remotely – will have far-reaching effects on courthouse design. Many courts are currently studying and piloting the permanent implementation of remote services, which will dramatically affect how space is used, ultimately affecting both the scale and cost of future courthouses.

Online dispute resolution for cases without a jury has revealed the many ways in which the public, especially disenfranchised communities, can benefit from equitable access to the justice system, as the need to physically appear in court creates financial and other charges.

Online dispute resolution has helped streamline processes by eliminating travel and waiting times. It has increased access for those who do not have child care, personal transportation or jobs with flexible time off, or for whom English is a second language.

Being able to appear in court remotely, during a break from work or in the presence of children can be an essential factor in maintaining a court appearance. Devices provided by courts or public libraries could also help bridge the equity gap for those with limited access to technology.

Data from the National Center for State Courts’ Court Statistics Project[1] indicates a large backlog of civil cases, addictions and family relations due to the closure of courthouses during the pandemic. Meanwhile, preliminary findings in Ohio[2] and Michigan[3] show that juvenile and family cases see faster resolutions, as online dispute resolution helps dispel heightened emotions in family court by physically separating litigants and providing a means for minors where they feel more comfortable engaging in the process.

The online traffic pilots have also proven to be effective with higher participation rates and faster resolution. Meanwhile, options for handling crime cases online would help reduce the backlog of cases. These measures would also make it possible to schedule more trials in courthouses, potentially reducing the time the defendants are held on remand.[4]

Another trend in the pandemic era that will influence the use of courthouse space is the use of remote translation services. Translations via audio stream are more accurate because translators are immune to courtroom distractions. Remote translations also allow access to more languages ​​and dialects, reducing stress for those who need translation services.

For rural states with diverse populations, this simple technological change improves accuracy while reducing barriers to forensic services.

Rethinking the space to support hybrid procedures

Courthouses can adapt to the changes of the pandemic era by incorporating improved technology and acoustically isolated access points into public areas of new and existing courthouses. Accommodation for off-site translators with secure audio streams to courtrooms should be integrated into courtrooms.

Meanwhile, if online dispute resolution means greater use of courtrooms for jury trials, courtrooms will need to be changed to include more jury boxes to meet revised schedules.

Lawyers, district attorneys, pro support organizations, domestic violence counselors and others who provide counseling can now provide some of their services remotely through legal portals, which the public can access through secure connection points located in the public halls of courthouses rather than in a suite of rooms. This will help determine the size of future courthouses.

In existing courthouses, this new space could be reallocated for functions that rely on face-to-face contact.

For example, while many states have successfully hosted virtual trials during the pandemic, it is helpful to meet in person for certain types of arbitration and court services.

Some jury trials and ADR methods may not be well suited to video formats, as remote proceedings have been shown to affect jurors’ perception of credibility, body language, and other nuanced information that is essential. In addition, procedures involving restorative justice, where the parties come together to right the wrong done, might be more effective when the parties face each other directly, and courtrooms should be set up to accommodate these procedures.

As society begins to re-imagine our justice system and its disparate impacts on certain communities, we must examine the architectural expression of justice facilities. It begins with a careful assessment of the facade and impression courthouses give to the community, and continues with the analysis of policies and their spatial implications.

Courts and architects must determine the types of services courthouses should accommodate, and then determine the size and design that would meet the needs of the population. Careful study of the enhanced technology support and how it affects physical space is also warranted. Ultimately, courthouse design should respond to changing procedures and technologies by implementing strategies designed to provide equitable and fair access to all.


Clair Colburn is Senior Partner and Architect at Finegold Alexander Architects Inc.

“Perspectives” is a regular article written by guest authors on access to justice issues. To submit article ideas, email [email protected]

The opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the organization, its clients or Portfolio Media Inc., or any of its respective affiliates. This article is for general information purposes and is not intended to be and should not be construed as legal advice.

[1] Court Statistics Project, Pandemic Caseloads, (March 2021). Online at https://www.courtstatistics.org/interactive-data-displays-nav-cards-first-row/pandemic-data.

[2] The Ohio Supreme Court Task Force on Improving Court Operations Using Remote Technology, iCourt Report and Recommendations | Volume I (2021).

[3] Lessons Learned by Michigan Magistrates’ Courts from the 2020-2021 Pandemic: Findings, Best Practices, and Preliminary Recommendations from the Recommendation (June 29, 2021).

[4] LJAF Report, The Hidden Costs of Pre-trial Detention (November 2013).


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