Since the beginning of the pandemic, there has been plenty of discussion within the courthouse planning community about the way remote proceedings have improved court operations. Remote proceedings have provided the public with more convenient access to the court and have provided the court with an efficient means of administering justice.
As an architect who specializes in courthouse planning and design, I have spent the last two years considering various design solutions that can accommodate both remote and in-person proceedings. For example, I have participated in workshops that resulted in solutions where the typical planning module for one courtroom (i.e., 40’W x 60’L) can be replaced with up to three smaller rooms that contain specific technology infrastructure for remote hearings. This would allow the court to have several proceedings occur simultaneously rather than scheduling the time around one courtroom. Solutions such as this provide flexibility within the courthouse and enable the court to be more efficient. However, the momentum to incorporate these concepts into real projects has been stalled. The difficulty planning teams face is how to justify which solutions should be applied to a project.
The demand for new courthouse projects is rapidly increasing across the nation. The time has come for the judiciary to formally review, revise, and/or add to its policies regarding alternative work scenarios such as those mentioned above. Similar to what was done during the pandemic in almost every jurisdiction, permanent policies need to be adopted to incorporate remote proceedings into a court’s daily practice. It is important for official policy to be adopted so that courts become committed to working in these environments, and so that proper spaces can be provided.
In my role, I rely on official court policy to guide space recommendations, and this becomes very important when trying to incorporate more innovative solutions. For example, a policy might be that civil motion hearings will be held remotely, or that arraignment proceedings will be held in person. Each of these policies could result in a different space solution. Of course, there are always exceptions, and each court jurisdiction is different. But without written directives, I fear things will revert to the same old way of doing business, and we will have lost the momentum gained during the pandemic to modernize the way courts function.
I believe the best way to obtain a more permanent change in policy – particularly as we emerge from the pandemic – is to engage the judges in the courthouse planning discussions. If there are multiple judges using the courthouse, it is important to appoint one judge who can speak for the entirety of the bench. It's not that judges should make design decisions, but they know what has worked and what hasn’t worked in their jurisdiction. I have seen judges who were formerly wed to the traditional courtroom arrangement reexamine that position now that they have experienced the benefits of remote hearings. The experience has also forced them to consider the many legal aspects of conducting proceedings in a non-traditional setting.
Architects cannot be expected to understand all of the nuances and legal ramifications associated with how a proceeding is run. There are litigant rights and other outside influences that need to be considered, such as how detainees are held and how they are transferred to the courthouse. There are also local law enforcement initiatives and state-specific legal regulations. In my opinion, involving judges in these critical post-pandemic discussions not only provides these judges with the opportunity to provide feedback on design alternatives, but also allows them to use their influence to champion the policy changes.
This is a critical time for the advancement of modern courthouse design. It is my opinion that policy changes can relieve the uncertainty that is presently derailing meaningful progress in courthouse design. I hope we will see a willingness on the part of the judiciary to set new and/or permanent policies that allow for the incorporation of more non-traditional hearing spaces. If you are planning a new courthouse or restarting a project that was stalled because of the pandemic, I urge you to engage the judiciary immediately. It is important to facilitate a discussion that will lead to policy changes. The evolution of courthouse design depends on it.