On 15th October 2015 Natalie Ceeney, CEO of HM Courts & Tribunals Service, stated that the ‘physical paradigm’ of courts in the UK had to change. As a £700m programme of regeneration is now underway, a research project headed by Dr Alex Jeffrey sought to understand how best this change can be enacted, and to identify the pitfalls that need to be avoided.

For many of our services, that physical paradigm no longer feels like the right answer, not just because it’s expensive, but because it is no longer the right answer for good justice.

Natalie Ceeney

The court experience? It is 95% boredom and 5% trauma

Inmate of HMP Wandsworth

The HMCTS believes that increased use of communication technology, mediating NGOs and temporary courts sites would transform public access to justice. ICT can now offer new ways to access trials, challenging the traditional necessity to have participants physically present in the court room. Yet this raises questions over fairness and consistency in the trial process, and whether defendants and witnesses will be engaged and able to fully communicate with their legal representation. The need for economic efficiencies has also encouraged the concentration of trial activity to take place in fewer, larger courts, which imposes restrictions on security and access which may not be appropriate for all trials.

ESRC IAA funding enabled Dr Alex Jeffrey to organise three interdisciplinary workshops, which took place between July 2016 and January 2017, to explore different perspectives on these changes to courts, focusing in particular on courts as physical environments that provoke different responses from their varied users. The workshops, held at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, and HMP Wandsworth, were attended by a full range of court users: not simply the judiciary, architects or representatives from HM Courts and Tribunals, but also those who have been convicted through the court system or assist in supporting witnesses and their families.

After all three workshops had taken place, Dr Jeffrey produced a public report entitled Court Space. This report will be launched in London by a participating NGO, Justice Innovations, and it identifies some key questions in relation to court spaces:

Who are courts for?

The discussions pointed to a tension between the needs of defendants, lawyers, judges and the wider public in the design and arrangement of courts. Rather than understanding court space purely in terms of the successful completion of trials, this report illustrates how courts possess a greater symbolic role as a space of justice within society. However, bad design and security measures impose restrictions upon public access and comfort, thereby threatening this symbolism.

Should courts be punitive?

The workshop discussions uncovered a concern that the increased use of security in courts, from the entrance procedures to protective measures around the dock, may intervene in assumptions of presumed innocence. The trial itself becomes a punishment; the arrangement of the court a means of deterrent. Others felt that this punitive approach eroded the principle of presumed innocence, stating that the punishment should begin after the adjudication of the crime has taken place, not before. However, it was also argued that there should be a preventative component to court spaces as part of the trial process, in order to dissuade people from committing future crimes.

Can technology provide the answer?

The use of technology in the court space is seen as both an opportunity and a threat. Some workshop participants were concerned about the lack of support and training in response to technological innovation, others worried about the quality of exchange that was capable over a video link. In more positive terms some saw technology as a means of avoiding gruelling transport schedules from remand prison to court, and as a mechanism for improving intelligibility of the trial process within court spaces. Pop-up-Courts could potentially be used to embed the justice system more locally, and the logistical difficulty of transporting on-remand defendants to court would be ameliorated.

Flexible security measures

Much discussion focused on whether hand or body cuffing prisoners is necessary, and the implications of such practices for assumptions of guilt or innocence amongst the jury. Participants also argued against the necessity for all defendants to be placed in a secure dock, as emphasised by an inmate at HMP Wandsworth who commented that ‘the experience of the defendant in the dock is lonely and isolating’. This concern emphasises the need for flexible court spaces that can adapt to suit individual uses and users.

The workshops helped to articulate that courts are not simply sites of trial justice, but also focal points for social understandings of justice. For this reason the legal system should avoid extending criminal punishment into the court space and adopt greater flexibility in relation to security measures and new technologies. Dr Jeffrey is planning to feed these recommendations into the Ministry of Justice’s discussion concerning the sale of the UK Court Estate.

To read the report in full please click here.