The term courtroom utilization is not common. A Google search of the term will yield very few mentions or papers and many of the limited results have more to do with electronic recording in the courtroom than with how often the courtroom is used.
However, courtroom utilization is a key component in court planning and an integral part of determining whether a courthouse: (1) adequately meets the needs of the court or (2) requires renovation, expansion, or new courthouse construction.
Simply put, courtroom utilization measures how often a courtroom is used for judicial proceedings and trials over a given time period. The basic unit of measurement is daily courtroom use. The daily use can then be summed by the week, month, and year to determine courtroom use.
It is important to note that courtroom utilization measures official judicial time in the courtroom. It is not a reflection of how hard or how many total hours a judge works. Time in chambers, researching case law, attending meetings and conferences, and unofficial use of courtrooms for swearing-in and other ceremonies are generally not included.
Most importantly, courtroom trials are not the most common outcome of the judicial system. A lengthy and costly trial can incentivize parties to resolve their differences by either a criminal plea deal or a civil settlement agreement. Scheduling court often promotes plea deals and settlements, which means that the courtroom serves the justice system whether it is occupied or not.
What is considered high utilization for a courtroom? Generally, if the data indicate that a courtroom is used 70% or more, this indicates high courtroom utilization. This corresponds to three and a half days or more per week out of a five-day week. Moderate utilization generally ranges between 50% and 70% or two and a half to three and a half days per week, while low utilization is less than 50%.
I have seen many types of courtroom utilization data, including court calendars, courtroom clerk time tracking, records kept by judges or court staff, surveys, and direct observation. Perhaps the most robust is specialized software with digital recording capabilities (e.g., For the Record) as part of an audio, recording, and transcription system.,
A court reporter or clerk activates such software systems once the court is in session. A record of the start time and end time is stored for each session. The resulting data can be compiled by day for each courtroom.
This makes it possible to analyze utilization by time of day instead of just total hours, which yields more detail as many courts are busier at certain times of the day. The reliability and uniformity of the recording system produces actionable data when measuring courtroom utilization for court planning.
Courtroom Utilization and Planning
Courtroom utilization is important to court planning in three areas:
You Can’t Manage What You Can’t Measure
Many courts lack accurate courtroom utilization data. Often, I am provided court calendars, many of which show what is scheduled but not what occurred. Such scheduling calendars rarely remain accurate due to no-shows, continuances, and postponements. Without a courtroom time-tracking system that can produce data in an analyzable format, courts may seem more or less busy than they are.
If you are trying to determine whether courtroom sharing is possible or if a new courtroom is needed, measuring actual courtroom time is important. When data are unavailable, I have had courts track courtroom use by judges and other courtroom staff or conduct randomized surveys over a multiweek period. The more robust the data, the better the results for decision support.
Caseload Management vs. Capital Outlays
This area of court planning is probably the most valuable application of courtroom utilization since it pertains to capital planning, which can involve evaluating numerous projects costing millions of dollars. Before deciding on renovation, expansion, or new construction of a courthouse, a court should perform its due diligence by conducting a courtroom utilization analysis.
If, on average, courtrooms have high utilization, it will confirm the need for new capital outlays. However, low to moderate utilization will reveal that a court can optimize its existing courtrooms through better operational efficiencies. This could save millions of dollars, especially with rising construction costs due to inflation.
Identification of Swing Space or Spare Courtrooms
For courts with multiple locations in a municipality, circuit, or region, a courtroom utilization analysis can examine the optimal use of courtrooms across facilities. This can occur while one location is renovated or repaired, and a courtroom in another courthouse is available. Due to the security needs of criminal defendants, another courthouse may be a preferable option to renting commercial office space (depending on the distance between courthouses).
For example, a court I worked on had outgrown its existing facility and needed an addition. However, the addition would take five or more years to complete. To help the court “survive” in the short term, I analyzed courtroom usage across neighboring facilities to determine the best location for judges to share courtrooms. This strategy helped the court keep the caseload moving while the addition was being constructed.
Measuring courtroom utilization is a key component in successful court planning. And with the rise in construction costs over the last several years, this is more important than ever. Courts should determine whether they optimally use their existing courtrooms before exploring more expensive alternatives like renovation, expansion, or new courthouse construction.