Reimagining Courthouse Design For Better Access To Justice

By Clair Colburn | October 31, 2021, 8:02 PM EDT ·

Clair Colburn
Clair Colburn
Courthouse design has historically been driven by tradition and precedent with relatively little input from the public. How can architects, together with the courts, advance courthouse design with the goal of providing better access to justice?

Traditional, iconic courthouses are elevated by a series of steps and have colonnaded stone facades with relatively small windows. The overall effect personifies dignity and solidity of the law, but such designs also preclude access for those with mobility challenges.

Today, architects and courts should endeavor to create a good public experience, and effect an important paradigm shift from the classical courthouse style to one that considers perspectives of the stressed, vulnerable members of public who visit the courthouses. This should begin with examining what message the courthouse communicates to the public before people even enter the building.

For example, having the courthouse entryway at the ground level, rather than elevating it with steps, not only makes the courthouse physically accessible because there are no steps or ramps to navigate, but it also creates a more welcoming, human-centric scale overall. Meanwhile, a facade made of glass and permeable materials allows natural light into the building and provides better views from the inside, representing literal and figurative transparency that encourages confidence and trust.

Within the building, designers have the opportunity to address recent cultural reckonings regarding privilege and bias by focusing on inclusion and incorporating all-gender restrooms, lactation rooms and signage in multiple languages.

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

The primary goals are empowerment and stress reduction, and one of the most effective ways to achieve this is by providing clear organizational layouts of the public areas so that the building can be navigated intuitively. Such layouts may include, for example, courtrooms occupying the same zone 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 lobbies and jury deliberation spaces.

Considering the Pandemic's Impact on Court Proceedings and Services

Designers should examine court proceedings and services to better understand and meet the needs of all the users of the building. Court case modalities have been broadening to accommodate adjudication approaches that include alternative dispute resolution procedures such as mediation and arbitration, as well as restorative justice.

These new modalities require a different architectural arrangement. In stark contrast to the axial, hierarchical approach of courtroom proceedings where communication takes place only between attorneys and judges, ADR spaces should facilitate interaction and reconciliation between parties. The size and proportion of the room, as well as the furniture and millwork, need to be designed to promote eye contact and agreement around a common table.

Additionally, the courts' response to the COVID-19 pandemic — leveraging technology to offer proceedings and services remotely — will have far-reaching effects on courthouse design. Many courts are now studying and piloting permanent implementation of remote services, which will significantly affect the way space is used, ultimately affecting both the scale and cost of future courthouses.

Online dispute resolution for nonjury cases revealed the many ways that the public, particularly disenfranchised communities, can be provided with fair access to the justice system, as the need to appear physically in court creates financial and other burdens.

Online dispute resolution has helped to streamline processes by eliminating travel and wait times. It has increased access for those without 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 work break, or with children present, can be a critical factor in keeping a court appearance. Devices provided by courts or public libraries could also help bridge the equity divide 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, dependency and domestic relations cases due to courthouse closures during the pandemic. Meanwhile, preliminary findings in Ohio[2] and Michigan[3] show juvenile and family cases experiencing faster resolutions as online dispute resolution helps to dissipate heightened emotions in family court by physically separating contentious parties and providing juveniles a medium where they feel more comfortable engaging in the process.

Piloted online traffic court proceedings have also proven effective with higher rates of attendance and expedited resolution. Meanwhile, options to proceed with misdemeanor cases online would help to reduce case backlog. These measures would also allow more trials to be scheduled in courthouses, potentially trimming pretrial detention time for defendants.[4]

Another pandemic-era trend that will influence space use within courthouses is the use of remote translation services. Translations via audio feed are more accurate because translators are impervious to courtroom distractions. Remote translations also allow access to a greater number of languages and dialects, reducing stress for those requiring translation services.

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

Reenvisioning Space to Support Hybrid Proceedings

Courthouses can adapt to pandemic-era changes by integrating enhanced technology and acoustically isolated access points within the public zones of both new and existing courthouses. Accommodations for offsite translators with secure audio feeds to the courtrooms should be integrated within courtrooms.

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

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

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

For example, while many states have successfully held virtual trials during the pandemic, there is value in meeting in person for certain types of adjudication and court services.

Some jury trials and ADR methods may not be well-suited for video formats, as remote proceedings have been shown to affect jurors' perceptions of credibility, body language and other nuanced information that is critical. Additionally, proceedings involving restorative justice, where parties come together to repair the harm done, might be most effective when parties face each other directly, and courtrooms should be configured to accommodate these proceedings.

As society begins to reimagine our judicial system and its disparate impacts on certain communities, we must examine the architectural expression of justice facilities. This begins by carefully assessing the facade and the impression that courthouses give to the community, and continues by analyzing policies and their spatial implications.

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



Clair Colburn is a senior associate and architect at Finegold Alexander Architects Inc.

"Perspectives" is a regular feature written by guest authors on access to justice issues. To pitch article ideas, email expertanalysis@law360.com.

The opinions expressed are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the organization, its clients or Portfolio Media Inc., or any of its or their respective affiliates. This article is for general information purposes and is not intended to be and should not be taken 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 Supreme Court of Ohio Task Force on Improving Court Operations Using Remote Technology, Report & Recommendations iCourt | Volume I (2021).

[3] Michigan Trial Courts Lessons Learned from The Pandemic of 2020-2021: Findings, Best Practices and Recommendation Preliminary Findings (June 29, 2021).

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

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