A common challenge in existing courthouses is constructing a new courtroom to accommodate growth in judges. Many existing courthouses, especially older facilities, have space constraints such as narrow column spans, lack of secure circulation pathways, and lack of vacant and available space, which make finding sufficient space for a courtroom nearly impossible.
I have seen many examples of courtrooms that have been “shoehorned” into existing facilities. Some of these courtrooms take on very descriptive names such as the “bowling alley,” referring to a long, narrow courtroom, or “the stage,” referring to a short, wide courtroom. Many courthouses constructed in an existing courthouse do not have proper circulation patterns for judges, prisoners, and the public. Many have awkward layouts that prevent the ease of movement for participants and clear lines of sight between the judge and courtroom participants.
Because many of the courtrooms I see that are constructed in existing courthouses have significant compromises that limit functionality, I often wonder what logic was used when designing the courtrooms. How was the space identified? What factors determined the layout? What trade-offs were considered when fitting the courtroom into existing space?
In examining these courtrooms and thinking through the design issues, I developed a general set of questions to help courts and architects think through the planning aspects of courtroom design.
Selecting Potential Spaces
When considering a renovation project to construct a new courtroom, it is often prudent to identify several potential areas in the courthouse that are large enough to accommodate a courtroom. Large blocks of contiguous space are seldom available in existing courthouses so this may require a bit of thought. Sometimes, there may already be tenants in a potential space. When this happens, a phased approach can be taken to move the tenant and then design the courtroom.
Once potential areas have been identified, you can narrow the process through a series of logical questions to determine which area is best suited for the courtroom – meaning the area that has the greatest opportunity for housing a well-functioning courtroom with the least number of trade-offs.
Key Questions for Designing a New Courtroom
Here are the questions that we commonly use to evaluate potential courtroom spaces, in priority order:
1. Does the space align with secure circulation pathways?
If a courthouse has secured circulation pathways for moving prisoners, it is often helpful to walk through those pathways to look for spaces that could be renovated into a courtroom. It is important for courtrooms to have proper circulation patterns for judges, jury, prisoners, and the public. If the circulation patterns are not available, it is important to minimize the distance that prisoners may have to travel through public areas to the courtroom and that judges may have to travel through public areas to chambers. These should be the circulation patterns that are weighted heaviest during the decision-making process. Ideally, all circulation patterns would line up for the courtroom but, if that cannot happen, minimizing the distances for prisoners and judges might yield a reasonable alternative.
2. Is the space large enough to meet courtroom design standards?
Not all jurisdictions have documented standards but there are a handful of states, like Virginia, that have published court design standards. Also, the National Center for State Courts has publications that can help courts in jurisdictions with no official design standards. An average size for courtrooms that can house criminal proceedings is 1,700 to 1,800 square feet.
Thus, when identifying space that is suitable for a new courtroom, the goal is to find a rectangular space that is approximately 50 feet long and 35 feet wide, totaling 1,750 square feet. Ideally, ceiling heights would be 14 feet or higher. Finding available space that is the correct size and shape is often not possible, especially without moving tenants from the courthouse.
3. Is there available space to construct a full courtroom set?
A courtroom set is composed of the courtroom and ancillary support facilities, including two attorney interview rooms (100 to 150 square feet each), a courtroom holding cell (200 square foot area that contains a cell, vestibule, and circulation space), a jury deliberation room (250 square feet), and courtroom waiting area (typically a wider hallway outside the main courtroom doors). If you have identified a rectangular area for the courtroom, it would be important to consider adjacent spaces and even hallway spaces as opportunities to design a courtroom set.
When spaces are not available for a full courtroom set, I have seen situations where two or more courtrooms share the spaces. I have also seen courthouses consolidate these spaces on a floor by having an area that is accessible to all courtrooms on a given floor that contains a suite of attorney interview rooms, prisoner holding cells, and/or jury deliberation rooms.
4. Can reducing the dimensions of the courtroom enable it to fit in available space?
As mentioned above, ideally, a courtroom accommodating criminal proceedings would be between 1,700 and 1,800 square feet. However, for planning purposes, I would say that the minimal amount of space for a reasonably functioning courtroom is 1,200 square feet (30 feet wide x 40 feet long). Such a small courtroom will have significant trade-offs and compromises but can be made functional if the dimensions are reasonably proportioned.
There are numerous ways to reduce space in the courtroom to fit a given area. Examples include:
- Reducing furniture dimensions such as a smaller judge's bench, narrower attorney tables, or minimalist jury box.
- Alternative furniture layouts can be considered, including placing the judge's bench in a corner to take advantage of a wider diagonal well layout, and vertically aligning attorney tables so that they can fit in a narrower well area.
- Limiting the space allocated to spectators so that there is more area for the well of the courtroom.
- If sufficient space for a trial courtroom cannot be found, consider a hearing room, videoconference hearing room, or a courtroom that has limited functions. Such limits could include accommodating only a single defendant in the well area at one time, or only conducting proceedings that do not require a jury box. Ideally, such a courtroom would be limited to proceedings that can functionally and safely be contained within the space, such as a courtroom handling motions and proceedings but not being capable of accommodating a full trial.
To help with the decision-making process, we have developed an eBook (see below) that serves as a decision tree based on the logic of the questions posed in this article.
These questions can be used as guidelines to help identify appropriate courtroom spaces and to logically make trade-offs to accommodate constraints. Because the courtroom serves as the core of the courthouse, it is critical to address potential courtroom issues in the earliest stages of the planning and design process when constructing a new courtroom. Doing so will help avoid missteps that might result in additional costs, delays, and/or unnecessary compromises to a well-functioning courtroom.
Editor's note: this post was originally published in July 2015 and has been completely revamped and updated for accuracy and comprehensiveness.
For additional guidance on how to plan a well-functioning courtroom, please download our free eBook, Trial Courtrooms: Planning a Courtroom in Limited Space.